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‘Public safety’ measures that could expand cash bail racing through House

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Posted at 7:16 AM, Apr 06, 2022

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.

Legislation meant to reverse a state supreme court decision on how judges set bail is progressing rapidly in the Ohio House. The measures could make their way to the floor this week, despite being introduced just 10 days ago.

The plan would direct judges to weigh public safety when determining the dollar value for bail. Judges already consider public safety when it comes to setting non-financial requirements. Tuesday, current and former prosecutors, as well as a sitting common pleas judge spoke in favor the changes in the House Criminal Justice Committee.

Chair Jeff LaRe, R-Violet Township, and Vice Chair D.J. Swearingen, R-Huron, are co-sponsoring the legislation, and they’re taking a double-barreled approach. One proposal would alter state law, while the other attempts to put the idea to voters as a proposed constitutional amendment on November’s ballot.

As chair, LaRe has significant control over how quickly the measure can advance through his committee, and that could be welcome news to the bail industry. Making public safety a consideration in setting the financial terms for pre-trial release would tend to nudge bail amounts higher. In their press release announcing the legislation, for instance, LaRe and Swearingen highlight a case in Youngstown where a judge “dramatically” lowered the bond for a murder suspect because he couldn’t consider public safety when setting a dollar figure.

LaRe’s only obvious connection with the bail industry in terms of campaign contributions is $250 from Woody Fox of Woody Fox Bail Bonds, but the representative seems fairly friendly with the industry. He spoke last September at the Ohio Bail Agents Association’s Annual Conference.

Speaking after committee, LaRe pushed back, “I wouldn’t say I was pretty close to the bail industry,” he explained. “I was invited to their conference. It was actually during my congressional run.”

LaRe ran in a special election last year to replace former Rep. Steve Stivers. He had the outgoing congressman’s endorsement but lost in the primary to now-Rep. Mike Carey, R-OH.

According to the OBAA conference agenda, he was the only lawmaker to speak, and he was described as a state representative rather than a congressional candidate. His presentation was to cover “bail reform in Ohio” and a comparison of “bail procedures in different counties.” Tuesday, though, LaRe described the talk differently.

“I was speaking towards my congressional run. We didn’t talk about criminal justice. Didn’t really get into bail reform,” LaRe said.

Shortly after the criminal justice committee hearing, House leaders put both measures — HB 607 and HJR 2 — on the House calendar for April 6 “pending report.” The measures are already slated for a third hearing with opponents’ testimony that same morning.

“There is a possibility it comes up on the floor this week,” House Speaker Bob Cupp said after putting it on the calendar. “We’ll see what the committee does with it.”

The rapid pace of the measure is notable because a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate have been working for nearly a year on different legislation that would move in the opposite direction — reducing reliance on cash bail. Last year’s OBAA conference started the day with a lobbyist panel discussing those bills. But Cupp said he did not have a hand in fast tracking LaRe and Swearingen’s legislation.

“Nope. It’s generated from members who think considering public safety in setting bail is a good idea,” Cupp explained.

The speaker is a former Supreme Court justice, but on the question of whether he believes “public safety” is an appropriate consideration for cash bail, Cupp demurred.