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Proponents push legislation to reform Ohio's bail system, saying deck is stacked against poor people

Deters asks: 'What are we trying to fix here?'
Tamiko Williams stands outside her Avondale apartment. Her dark hair is in braids, and she's wearing a t-shirt that says, "Welcome to the good life."
Posted at 6:00 AM, Nov 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-11 22:04:14-05

CINCINNATI — Tamiko Williams is tired.

Her son, Jahmiko, has been locked up at the Hamilton County Justice Center since Dec. 23, 2019.

“He met up with some man in Avondale on Rockdale to purchase a Xbox,” she said. “And it didn’t go as planned, and he took the man’s Xbox and got caught for it.”

The victim told police Jahmiko Williams threatened him with a gun. And while no gun was recovered in connection with the crime, authorities don’t need the weapon to charge Williams with using one. He’s charged with aggravated robbery and having a gun during the crime.

Judge Megan Shanahan set his bond at $225,000.

That means Williams or his family would have to pay 10% of that, or $22,500, to bail him out of jail while he awaits trial. Tamiko Williams is a caregiver for people with disabilities. She doesn’t have that kind of money.

“Even though I’ve been working since I was 14, and I’m still working during this pandemic,” she said, “I’m not gonna be able to come up with that.”

Tamiko Williams, left, with her son, Jahmiko, in an undated photo.
Tamiko Williams, left, with her son, Jahmiko, in an undated photo.

Thousands of people across Ohio sit in jail – while they’re still legally innocent -- because they can’t afford to pay their bail. In 2018, nearly 12,600 people were incarcerated before their trials on any given day, according to an ACLU of Ohio study issued in September 2020.

A bipartisan effort aims to change that with identical bills introduced in the Ohio General Assembly – House Bill 315 and Senate Bill 182.

“The bail legislation creates a presumption of release so that folks, after they are arrested or accused of a crime, there is a presumption that they go home,” said Patrick Higgins, the ACLU of Ohio’s policy counsel. “That they get to go back to their families before trial.”

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters opposes the legislation, saying the measures would take authority away from judges and result in the release of dangerous inmates before they go to trial. He argues defendants like Jahmiko Williams should be behind bars.

“He’s a problem,” Deters said. “And that’s why he’s in jail.”

Going to jail – and staying there

Tamiko Williams sees it differently.

She views her 21-year-old son as a someone who needs help, not incarceration.

“He’s an energetic, intelligent young man,” she said. “He’s had some ups and downs with the juvenile system.”

Those ups and downs, Deters said, are the problem.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters stands at a microphone during a news conference.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters

Williams was arrested 33 times as a juvenile and first appeared before the court in 2011 when he was 11 1/2 years old on several misdemeanor charges for disorderly conduct and property damage, according to Hamilton County Juvenile Court records.

His juvenile record includes 61 charges. He was charged with robbery twice and was accused of using a pellet gun in one of those cases. His juvenile record also includes five theft charges, one charge of grand theft of a motor vehicle and a burglary charge. There are no gun specifications linked to any of those charges. Charges for robbery, burglary and felonious assault were dismissed because Williams was found not competent to stand trial.

Williams also has a burglary charge pending as an adult, and a firearm was among the items stolen during that crime, according to Amy Clausing, an assistant prosecuting attorney and public information officer in Deters' office.

As a juvenile, Williams failed to appear in court seven times.

“There’s two ways to go to jail, especially in this county,” Deters said. “You either commit a violent offense or you’re doing something over and over and over again. This guy fits both bills. He keeps robbing people at gunpoint, and he doesn’t show up. So he should be in jail.”

Williams’ mother said her son doesn’t understand why he’s still locked up. He had an IEP – or individualized education program – in school, she said.

“Jahmiko struggles with some mental health challenges and mental acuity challenges,” said Will Porter, the lead organizer for the Empowering Community Justice Initiative in Lower Price Hill.

Will Porter is smiling in this photo. His dark hair is slicked back, and he's wearing a pink dress shirt, a patterned tie and a pale blue suit jacket.
Will Porter

The initiative works with youth and young adults who have pending cases in juvenile court and a few in adult court. Porter has been working with Tamiko Williams on her son’s case along with Chazidy Bowman, the prison support chair for Cincinnati NAACP.

“Jahmiko needs help. He needs care,” Bowman said. “And we feel like prison would not be a good thing for him.”

Jahmiko Williams fired his first court-appointed lawyer because he rarely saw the lawyer and didn’t agree with the plea deal the lawyer was working to arrange, his mother said. The plea deals under discussion have included a sentence of seven to 14 years, Tamiko Williams said. She said her son’s new court-appointed attorney told her on Nov. 2 that seven years in prison still is under discussion.

The attorney, Adam Seibel, told WCPO that his client did not want to be part of this story. Tamiko Williams told WCPO that doesn't match up with what her son has told her.

Deters pointed out that Williams' court-appointed attorneys have asked for all but one of the delays in his case since December of 2019. And Clausing said delays don't help prosecutors win cases. But Williams doesn't think he should have to take the plea deals his lawyers have explained to him, his mother said.

“Because Jahmiko’s poor, he’s sat in jail for two years,” Porter said. “Two years in jail because you can’t afford bail will make you want to take the plea deal in front of you.”

Chazidy Bowman smiles in this photo. Her curly, dark hair is jaw-length. She's wearing a dress with yellow, black and white stripes.
Chazidy Bowman

That’s a problem for defendants across Ohio, said Kevin Werner, policy director for the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice & Policy Center, especially for people who are in jail and could get out by taking a plea deal. Many people agree to plea deals so they can go home, he said, rather than lose their jobs, their housing and maybe even custody of their children.

“The deck is stacked against a person who’s poor,” Werner said. “They know their life is already unraveling. So they say, ‘I’ve gotta get out of here. My options are – I don’t have options. Except I could take this plea deal. I could say I did this even though I really didn’t because I’ve gotta get out of here.’”

When that happens, people end up with a criminal record and limit their options for life, Werner said, because there are many occupations they no longer can pursue.

Mary Evans said that’s what happened to her.

‘I lost everything’

Evans was arrested in 2010 in Gallia County and charged with felony drug trafficking.

“My bond was $500,000,” she said. “I was a low-level drug dealer. They made my bond half a million for two ounces of crack cocaine. It made it impossible for me to get out.”

Evans, a mother of three, said she believes the police were pressuring her to cooperate so they could arrest bigger drug dealers. But she refused because she was worried that would put her family in danger. She pleaded guilty within days of her arrest and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

“My mom came down. They took me upstairs, handcuffed. I had to sign over my temporary custody to her,” she said. “I never had a chance to get my affairs in order, get my paycheck from my job.”

Mary Evans is smiling in this photo.
Mary Evans

She spent seven of those eight years in prison. Evans received a full scholarship to Antioch College upon her release, graduating as a member of the class of 2020.

She said she’s on a good life path now as a radio producer at public radio station WYSO and an events and social media manager at Antioch. But it has been a struggle.

“I lost everything,” she said. “I just feel like something didn’t add up.”

Deters said nobody has been able to give him the name of any Hamilton County inmates sitting in jail for days, weeks or months because they’re accused of low-level offenses and can’t make bail. And Williams, he said, does not fit that description.

“He doesn’t show up for court. I mean, what are you supposed to do with a guy like that?” Deters said. “He is a problem. And that’s why he’s in jail.”

Deters didn’t know the range of prison time being discussed as part of a plea deal for Williams but said seven to 14 years wouldn’t surprise him.

“Instead of going to jail for 35 years? That’s probably true,” Deters said. “And they don’t like the result either way. I mean who wants to go to prison? I got an idea. Don’t stick a gun in somebody’s face and rob ‘em. Then you don’t go to jail. And he can’t stop doing that. And he’s a danger.”

‘Not a whole lot of crime in Mariemont’

In a summary of his concerns related to House Bill 315 and Senate Bill 182, Deters called the legislation “well-intentioned” but said its “practical impacts would be catastrophic.”

“I would be happy to engage in a dialogue with any legislator who wants to protect the rights of our citizens and the safety of our communities,” the summary states. “However, this legislation would only serve to exacerbate the problems we face.”

Supporters argue the legislation would give prosecutors and judges leeway to keep people locked up if they believe defendants are a threat to the community.

“It creates that public safety piece that allows the court or prosecutor to say we’re going to take a look at the risks we have here, and we’re going to set conditions on whether or not this person goes home,” said Higgins of the ACLU of Ohio. “And if they do go home, we’re going to look at the least restrictive ways to make sure they show up to court.”

Patrick Higgins is smiling in this photo. He has short brown hair and is wearing a pale blue button-down shirt.
Patrick Higgins

But Deters said serious offenses -- including sexual battery, unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, aggravated assault, misdemeanor domestic violence and others -- would not trigger that kind of consideration under the proposed law.

“I understand not all counties operate like Hamilton,” Deters’ statement says. “And if there are counties across the state where people are being treated unfairly because of their socioeconomic status or skin color, those issues are best addressed in the court system. I would strongly advocate that those citizens elect better judges. But this is a local-rule issue.”

The legislation also includes guidelines for how much a defendant’s bail can be, limiting the amount to 25% of a person’s income. Deters scoffed at that notion, saying that big-time drug dealers don’t declare their income to the IRS and have plenty of cash to pay large bail amounts.

“That’s how naïve that is,” he said.

When asked about statistics that show poor and low-income people make up most of the defendants behind bars, Deters said that’s because poor neighborhoods are where most crimes occur.

“All those murdered in Indian Hill and Hyde Park that are walking free,” he said, sarcastically. “There’s not a whole lot of crime in Mariemont. There’s not.”

Higgins argued that’s a result of policing.

“Pretrial detention in the state of Ohio is very reflective of some of the very same issues we see in the criminal legal system as a whole, both in the state and nationally,” he said. “Based on the way that our communities are policed and the way that we would prosecute crimes, we see an over-representation of low-income people. We see an over-representation of people of color. And as a result, we see this exacerbation of these issues.”

The Bail Project

Deters said the “criminal lobby” – defense attorneys and people advocating for prisoners’ rights -- and a few members of the Ohio Supreme Court are the only people within the legal system who support the legislation. He and his staff, he said, are working with Republicans in Columbus to kill the bills.

Senate Bill 182 was introduced in May and referred to the Ohio Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Sen. Rob McColley, a Republican from Napoleon, Ohio, is one of the bill’s primary sponsors. A legislative aide in his office told WCPO in an email that revisions to the measure are in the works.

“We are currently working on a substitute bill that will address many of the concerns brought up by individuals,” Legislative Aide Kayleigh Bernow wrote, “and changes that will make it easier to keep alleged violent felons in jail prior to their trial without the possibility of bail.”

The Bail Project isn’t waiting.

The nonprofit began serving Cincinnati clients in September 2020. Of the 185 clients served during The Bail Project’s first 13 months here, at least 111 were parents of children younger than 18, said Shameka Parrish-Wright, the organization’s national partnerships and advocacy manager and its operations manager in Ohio.

Lawyers in the Hamilton County Public Defender’s office make referrals, and The Bail Project staff members determine which inmates to bail out. Once the defendants return to court, their bail money gets returned to The Bail Project to help others, Parrish-Wright said.

Hamilton County Judge Megan Shanahan confers with lawyers in her courtroom.
Hamilton County Judge Megan Shanahan confers with lawyers in her courtroom.

“We’re not lawyers. We’re not social workers. But we try to meet each client where they are. And then we work to get them back to court,” she said. “We see a lot of cases dismissed.”

The Bail Project pays each defendant’s full bond amount, she said, rather than only the 10% bail, and is limited in the number of people the organization can help.

“We pay bails generally $5,000 and below,” she said. “We have paid bails up to $10,000. And we have, in partnership with other organizations, paid the bail to help get someone home for a higher amount than $10,000.”

The organization has strict standards in cases where people are accused of intimate partner violence, she said, and requires internal approvals for higher bail amounts.

“At any given moment we don’t have enough resources, enough money to bail everybody out,” she said. “So we have to use the money we do have on people that we know will come back.”

‘What are we trying to fix here?’

Tamiko Williams wants her son back.

She said she has been especially worried since May, when a corrections officer at the Hamilton County Justice Center punched him in the head.

She contacted the Cincinnati NAACP after it happened, and Bowman has been helping her ever since.

“I don’t get sleep since May,” Tamiko Williams said. “It’s a lot of injustice in the justice system.”

Tamiko Williams waits in a Hamilton County court room on Nov. 2, 2021.
Tamiko Williams waits in a Hamilton County court room on Nov. 2, 2021.

Hamilton County Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey said the punch occurred after a corrections officer saw Jahmiko Williams smoking in his cell -- a serious violation at the justice center.

“The officer was addressing that, as he should, as he’s mandated to. Our prisoner here, he gave some resistance,” she said. “It did result in a use of force. That use of force was not only videotaped, but it was also investigated.”

McGuffey said her office determined the corrections officer should have handled the matter differently and sent him to de-escalation training. All corrections officers also got a briefing note stating they should not strike prisoners in the head unless there is a “very valid reason,” she said, such as the corrections officer’s life being in danger.

Bowman took issue with McGuffey's assertion that Williams was smoking in his cell, saying no contraband ever was found. But she said she and Williams' mother were pleased that the case resulted in changes to the justice center's policies.

Corrections officers work to build positive relationships with inmates, McGuffey said, especially those who are incarcerated for a long time. But spending months or years in jail is “a hardship,” she said, “and it does fray your nerves a bit.”

“It wears on the officers, wears on the prisoners,” she said. “Certainly it does.”

Judges are the ones who determine bail, McGuffey said, but added she thinks bail reform has a value.

“We do not want people to languish in jail if they don’t need to,” she said. “And I do know that over the years, there have been people who languished in incarceration when they could have – had they been able to afford bail – gotten out and been productive.”

Deters said the way he sees it, the people in jail deserve to be there.

“What are we trying to fix here?” he said. “Who’s in jail that shouldn’t be in jail?”

Tamiko Williams, left, and her son, Jahmiko, in an undated photo.
Tamiko Williams, left, and her son, Jahmiko, in a worn, undated photo.

Tamiko Williams sees it differently, especially when it comes to her son.

“That high bond they have on him, it’s just, it’s ridiculous,” she said. “It’s acting like he’s a terrorist.”

The full text of Senate Bill 182, as it was introduced, is available online. A 16-page analysis of the legislation is available online, too.

More information about The Bail Project is available at bailproject.org.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.