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Bail reform in the criminal legal system is being considered at the Ohio Statehouse

Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
Posted at 11:07 PM, Nov 12, 2021

TWINSBURG, Ohio — You can buy your way out of jail, but only if you have money.

That’s the pointed message coming from bail reform advocates in Ohio, with two bills (House Bill 315 and Senate Bill 182) being considered by state lawmakers. The bills are nearly identical and have bipartisan support.

Madeline Jones's pretrial detention experience

Madeline Jones has lived in Twinsburg all her life. Now, she’s raising her four children—ages one, two, seven and nine—there, too. She works as a receptionist for a men’s spa.

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PHOTO: Madeline Jones of Twinsburg with her four children, ages one, two, seven and nine.

In 2020, Jones received a felony warrant in the mail, “due to allegedly attacking my husband’s baby mother.” She wanted to take care of it as soon as possible, so she turned herself in and bond was set at $10,000 cash or surety.

“When I went into the jail, I [had] already been bleeding a little bit, but I just was like trying to take care of my business or whatever,” Jones said. “So I just didn't think about it because I'm like, ‘I can just get in and I know how that that part of it works. You just pay your bond and you get out.’”

As staff worked on her intake into the jail, fingerprinting her and asking medical questions, she told them she was pregnant and was bleeding. Then, Jones said, protocol dictated she had to go to the hospital.

“I refused medical care at the hospital because I knew that I could just handle this on my own. I didn't want anybody touching me,” Jones said. “I had shackles on my feet, like I was just over it because I'm like, ‘I’m about to be getting out. I don't need you guys to do nothing for me right now.’”

She was at the hospital for a few hours, waiting for her bond to be paid. But when she returned to the jail, she was told there was an error with her paperwork and no one seemed to know where her bond was. Jones decided she needed to return to the hospital because she wouldn’t be getting out of jail that night and was still bleeding.

“They ended up taking me back to the hospital, [and] they tell me that they don't see the baby in there anymore,” Jones said.

She was having a miscarriage.

“They don't keep people in the hospital for miscarriages,” Jones said. “Once again, still shackled, all that stuff, they take me back to the jail. They make me sit downstairs before they even have a person come bring me upstairs to go lay down, take a shower to get comfortable. They left me downstairs for, like, I would say it had to be like a good hour.”

When she finally got upstairs, she asked to take a shower and said she was told no initially, before someone higher-up was called to get approval.

She eventually posted bond with help the following day and got out of jail in the late afternoon.

What bail reform advocates say

For bail reform advocates, Jones’s story makes it clear what some of the problems with the system are.

“Rather than being a tool to create public safety, the current bail system actually makes us less safe and damages public safety,” said Piet van Lier, senior researcher at Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit policy research institute.

Van Lier said people can buy their freedom by paying bail, but “if they don’t have money, they’re stuck. So it's a really unequal system that favors people with money that can afford their bail, and disadvantages and traps people who basically don't have the money and can't even afford a percentage of their bail to pay a bail bondsperson.”

He added that there is not only bipartisan support for bail reform in the legislature, but also from groups across the ideological spectrum, although he stressed the importance of not watering down the bills’ language.

“I think there's a really good prospect for these bills to to move forward and get us to a better place [with] a more just, humane system,” van Lier said.

Van Lier also reminded critics of bail reform that those who are released pretrial have not been convicted of a crime, just accused of one, and are not criminals, by definition.

“They're often being held for a crime that they haven't been tried for yet,” van Lier added.

Policy Matters Ohio put out a report in early November about the impact of bail in the criminal legal system on the mental and physical health of those affected.

“The criminal legal system unfairly targets specific populations, whether it's people who don't have money, Black and brown people, LGBTQ+ people,” van Lier said. “Just damages people and it really affects our whole community because in fact, people who are held pretrial and can't make bail are more likely to be convicted—for the same crimes as people who are released—they're more likely to be convicted, more likely to serve time post-conviction, and that increases the rates, the chances that a person will commit another crime.”

Van Lier said the trauma and stress associated with being incarcerated even for a few days is huge, and that many people already enter jails with mental heath or substance abuse issues. Suicide is also a big concern.

That’s not to mention other effects, such as losing one’s housing or job, or even having to put children in foster care. And the long-term effects on children can reach into their adult lives.

“There's research that shows that children of people who have been incarcerated, both pretrial and post-conviction, that those effects can linger for years. You know, the anxiety and stress,” van Lier said. “In some ways, there's evidence that it's worse than post-trial, post-conviction, because it's more uncertain. You don't really know what's going to happen.”

Van Lier said the legal system needs to find ways to get people the treatment and help they need for drug abuse, treatment, better mental health care and other issues, rather than simply incarcerating them.

“The biggest part of what happens in these bills is a presumption for release, which means that it's presumed that people who are arrested and booked will be released immediately or as soon as possible,” van Lier said, noting the process has safeguards if the courts see that person as a specific threat or a flight risk, in which case the hearing has to be within a certain amount of time.

“I think that's important for people to know. It's not just like a get-out-of-jail-free card,” van Lier added. “It's a very thoughtful, planned approach to this.”

Van Lier also cautioned against “external incarceration,” with frequent drug testing or ankle monitoring.

“That may sound better, but in fact, often those costs are passed on to the individuals. And if you're wearing an ankle monitor for a period of time, the individual, the person themselves have to pay for it,” van Lier said. “Can they get to their job? Do they lose their job? Can you find a job, if they're dealing with these release conditions?”

“It’s not going to work here”

Woody Fox and Charles Miller serve as the vice president and president, respectively, of the Ohio Bail Agents Association.

“[Bail reform advocates] don't want people to stay in jail that are poor, and we don't either,” Fox said.

Fox said he doesn’t think judges are looking at how much money someone has when they set bail, but rather at the crime and at the chances that person returns to court.

That’s where bail bondsmen come in, putting up money to guarantee someone shows up. If the person does not appear in court, “then the court may keep the money that we had pledged. And so, if they don't show up, it becomes a risk for us to try to apprehend the person and put them in jail,” Miller said.

Miller believes there’s a time and a place for bail bonds, in the interest of reducing recidivism. He said that they were not against “OR bonds,” or releasing someone on his or her own recognizance, especially if the person is in trouble for the first time or is nonviolent.

“Now, do you give everyone an OR bond? No,” Miller said. “The people who don't show over and over and over, should they keep getting the pass? At some point, you know that some of the people who never show up become a cost to the system.”

Miller and Fox both believe a better reporting system is needed to track warrants and failures to appear. They worry bail reform will put more work onto police, who should be solving other crimes.

“When they don't show, who's going to go get them? There's only so many police and they can't be everywhere,” Miller said. “So do you want them to be there to stop the domestic violence or you want them to chase someone who missed court? You know, I think everyone would rather be there for the domestic violence.”

Fox said he wouldn’t say everything in the bills was bad, but he did say he doesn’t think the majority of it will work.

“It hasn't worked anywhere else and it's not going to work here,” Fox said.

The rest of Jones’s story

Jones’s initial bond was later revoked because she tested positive for marijuana in a urine test the day of her arraignment. Another warrant was issued for her arrest.

“I had a warrant for like three months because of that, because I'm like, ‘Oh my God, they revoked my bond, I have four kids, I got to get everything in order, I don't even know what's going to happen. I've never been in trouble before,’” Jones said.

Ultimately, she spent 20 days in jail after turning herself in for the failed drug test. Her felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors, and she entered guilty pleas.

The entire experience, Jones said, was difficult and stressful from start to finish for her and her family.

“I was jailed. I was innocent, but I was still in jail and having all these things suffering because of this situation,” Jones said.

Madeline Jones
PHOTO: Madeline Jones poses with her four children.

She worried about her life and her freedom. She worried about the fact that her mother’s life was affected, as she took care of Jones’s children for 20 days. She worried about her job. She worried about the counseling she was doing, from which she said she got dropped and had to sign up again.

“It really impacted me a lot,” Jones said. “When I sat in there for 20 days, I didn't know which way my life was going to go, like, ‘Am I about to get in trouble for this? Are they going to see the truth? Is it going to be OK?’”

Jones admitted she didn’t know much about how these laws worked, but said she does not think people should be jailed if they’re innocent. She also expressed frustration with the amount of physical paperwork and how it gets processed in Cuyahoga County’s court system, saying she believes documents get missed and everything should be filed electronically.

Asked what she thought about the idea that money could buy you freedom from jail, Jones said, “I feel like that's super wrong, because at the end of the day, a lot of people do not have that kind of money.”

She said that should “definitely be changed.” But she noted that for her, it depends on the crime and the evidence. She also believes people should not have to sit in jail on bond, and that it should be a personal (OR or recognizance) bond unless law enforcement or prosecutors have all the facts.

“What about the people that don't have money? Then they got to sit there and what if they're innocent?” Jones said.

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