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County officials debate whether bail system disproportionately hurts low-income defendants

Posted at 4:03 PM, Oct 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-13 21:10:52-04

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati City Council discussed bail reform in a recent Law and Public Safety Committee meeting, candidates running for Hamilton County Sheriff have debated the topic, and now two other candidates running for Hamilton County judge positions have spoken out on the topic.

When a person is arrested and charged with a crime, the only way to spend the days leading up to the trial outside of a jail cell is to pony up and pay cash for bail. The system has been hotly debated as discussion around policing and criminal justice reform has increased approaching the election.

"They're too poor to buy their way out of jail, and that is costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Wendy Calaway, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati.

In April 2019, Cincinnati City Council passed a motion to eliminate cash bonds in cases where the defendant is charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor. Instead, the prosecutor assigned to the case will ask for an "own recognizance" bond with no financial obligation.

Candidates running for election this fall have debated and discussed the idea of a more comprehensive bail-reform system.

"I think you could probably reform it a little bit, but I don't think you want to eliminate it altogether," said Charles Kubicki Jr., presiding Hamilton County judge.

Kubicki testified in front of city council's Law and Public Safety Committee in September that he believes the current bail system can increase public safety, protect witnesses from possible intimidation and reduce the risk of defendants fleeing before their trials.

Kubicki's opponent, attorney Alison Hatheway, argued that the amount of funding a person has access to does not correlate to whether that person is a danger to their community.

"We could have pretrial services screen them to see how much of a threat they are," she said. "This is not new; these are things that are working in other jurisdictions."

Pretrial services is also supposed to gather information on a defendant's income, but judges often don't discuss that information during initial arraignments. If a judge does not allow a lower bond, a defendant can wait in the Hamilton County Jail for months or more before their trial begins. Research has shown this time spent in jail can be incredibly detrimental to defendants from low-income families.

In just 48 hours of being held pre-trial, someone can be losing jobs, housing and custody of children, Dorianne Mason, director of the Second Chance Project, said in a 2019 interview with WCPO, when city council passed the 2019 motion.

"Once they've lost their job, they've lost their home, they've lost their children... that's where public crimes start to come into play: public intoxication, trespassing, homelessness," said Calaway.

Both Kubicki and Hatheway also argued on the topic of health benefits. Kubicki said defendants can spend their time in jail getting substance abuse and mental health help, but Hatheway argued pretrial services could take up that mantle if established.