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Before Setting Bail, Summit County Judges Look to Risk Ratings

Summit County has been using its pretrial risk assessment system for about a decade. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Summit County has been using its pretrial risk assessment system for about a decade.

The first time a person shows up in court after being arrested, the judge has a decision to make. Should the defendant be released back, or should they await their trial from jail? Judges make this call by setting bond.

Cuyahoga County is considering revamping it bail system, so that people don’t wait behind bars merely because they can’t pay.

Meanwhile, a state panel this year recommended that local courts take up pretrial risk assessments, which provide judges with more information about defendants shortly after arrest. Cleveland Municipal Court announced last year that it would begin using such measures.

Summit County changed its bail system a decade ago, and could provide an example of where Ohio courts are headed.

‘We’re Kind of Like Switzerland’

This is how the morning begins in Akron Municipal Court. Defendants who’ve been arrested on felony charges make their first appearance before a judge. They’re in Summit County Jail, but join the proceedings via closed-circuit TV.

Judge Jason Adams has to set bond. Defendants often must put down a percentage of that to get out of jail.

Standing before Adams is Kerri Defibaugh. She heads Summit County’s pretrial services division. It’s her job to recommend a bond amount.

“So, regarding bond?” Adams asked.

“Your honor, the recommendation is a $5,000 signature bond, medium supervision,” Defibaugh replied. “It’s been seven years since his last felony conviction. He’s one of two co-defendants in this case.”

Signature bonds allow defendants to go free, without paying, after signing a promise to show up for court again. They would only have to pay if they don’t reappear. In this case, the prosecutor asked for a higher bond because a gun was allegedly involved.

Defibaugh is meant to be a neutral party in an adversarial courtroom.

“We’re kind of like Switzerland,” Defibaugh said in an interview. “Because you have the prosecutor who’s there who makes the recommendation one way or another, and we’re just there to provide the most unbiased information.”

A ‘Job Application’ for Setting Bond

Defibaugh’s department’s work actually begins much earlier than this, with an interview of the defendant in jail. It’s called a pretrial risk assessment, and it’s what makes Summit County’s court different from many others in Ohio.

“This is what it would look like completely blank,” she said, holding a small packet of papers used in the assessment.

There are nine check boxes for what are known as risk factors—such as criminal history or past drug use. Defendants are assigned a risk level.

“The one that carries the most weight is this one, the two or more failure to appear convictions,” she said. “So each one carries a numerical score on this grid here.”

On the following pages, defendants can provide education, employment and medical history. There’s even a section for references.

Judge Amy Corrigall Jones, the administrative judge in Summit County common pleas court, said the assessment is “almost an extensive job application, for lack of a better term.”

The assessments give an idea of who might pose a greater risk of reoffending or missing court, and that helps judges decide what bond to set.

But Corrigall Jones said the papers are not predictions, and judges aren’t bound by them.

“Because this is not a math equation,” Corrigall Jones said in an interview. “There is no crystal ball. And again, most of these folks are charged with very serious, serious crimes. So of course in Summit County, I think we’ve been described as progressive as it relates to this instrument, but there are always difficult decisions every day, being mindful of community safety, on behalf of the judges that need to be made.”

Supervision After Release from Jail

Of the people released on bond each year, about 1,500 last year were placed under what’s called pretrial supervision. They’re required to report to the nonprofit Oriana House.

Case workers there make sure defendants showing up for court and following the conditions of their release, such as avoiding alcohol or not contacting their alleged victim.

Melissa Bartlett, who heads pretrial supervision at Oriana, said low-level supervision means making weekly phone calls to Oriana.

“Maximum, the defendant is required to report weekly in person,” Bartlett said. “And there can be other special conditions, including electronic monitoring, urine drug screen testing.”

As for success rate—in 2014, seven percent of the 1,051 people on pretrial supervision at Oriana missed a court date, according to the court’s annual report. Another 6 percent were charged with a new crime.

Eddie Sipplen, an Akron defense attorney, said the assessment “works really well,” but said judges and prosecutors sometimes don’t follow it.

“Either you’re going to follow it or you aren’t,” Sipplen said in an interview. “And that’s my pet peeve with it, is it’s a great tool, but it’s not used in a consistent manner.”

Margaret Scott, the deputy chief assistant for the criminal division in the Summit County prosecutor’s office, said she found the assessments helpful, and that the court should not keep all defendants in jail pending trial.

“The two things you’re looking at is, are they going to show up for court and are they going to reoffend while they’re out,” Scott said. “It’s a judgment call, as it is with everything in life. So maybe it might be easy to just say, okay, keep everybody in. But that’s just not practical, and that’s not, that doesn’t work well for everbody or anybody.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.