After Cuyahoga Jail Report, Where Do Bail Reform Talks Stand?

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For years, judges in Cuyahoga County have discussed changing the way they set bail in order to allow more people to skip the jail cell and await trial from home. In the wake of a scathing U.S. Marshals Service report on the jail, advocates want changes now.

Since the release of the report in November, protesters have demonstrated outside county headquarters and the Justice Center. They want reforms to reach beyond the jail itself and into the courtrooms where judges decide who gets locked up in the first place.

“We want to see the situation in the jail rectified,” Rachael Collyer with the Ohio Student Association said at a protest in January. “We want to see bail reform happen, because so many of the people in there should not be there in the first place. So many other places have passed bail reform.”

The county jail population has fallen about 16 percent since the marshals’ investigation, from 2,420 in late October to an average of 2,023 last week, according to the county. But that’s still about the jail’s capacity of 1,765 people.

In 2017, the Pretrial Justice Institute took a one-day “snapshot” of the county’s jail population. The study found that 25 percent of felony defendants were detained from arrest to sentencing, with an average stay of 104 days. The remaining three quarters of defendants won release after an average of 17 days in jail.

The Conversation on Pretrial Services 

Local judges have been discussing how to keep more people out of jail before their trials. Last year, the courts and county formed the Cuyahoga County Criminal Justice Council to continue the conversation.

One possibility: Expand the services available for defendants across the county. Judges could set more personal bonds, meaning people don’t have to pay to stay out of jail. A pretrial services program could keep an eye on defendants, making sure they show up for court.

“These conversations start to embrace, could we see all of these individuals in one location, where all of the social service agencies gather in one spot, where mental health services could happen in one spot?” Shaker Heights Municipal Judge K.J. Montgomery said.

Shaker Heights is one of 13 municipal courts in the county. Defendants usually make a first appearance in one of these courts after their arrests. The municipal judge sets bond and transfers felony cases downtown, where defendants could spend time in the county jail.

There’s less pressure on the jails if defendants could be released soon after arrest and enroll in pretrial services. But courts don’t all have the same resources, Montgomery said.

“If I have someone who’s presenting that they might be a threat to themselves, and I’m trying to find a psychiatrist, we are literally on the telephone making calls to private psychiatrists who have to meet certain criteria,” she said. “And, ‘OK, I can see them on Tuesday at 2:45,’ and they drive to the jail. Another couple days for the report.”

Judges have talked about how to go in together on a centralized pretrial program, allowing municipal courts to share services like GPS monitoring and psychiatric help.

Judge John Russo, the administrative and presiding judge of the common pleas court, said that expanding the county’s pretrial system to the municipal courts will cost money.

“I hope it doesn’t end with nobody doing anything,” he said, “and that’s why we’re continuing to push the buttons to move forward. I think the jail issue has caused a lot now to be concerning about what do you do and how do you do it here in Cuyahoga County.”

Russo said he’s been talking with PJI and the ACLU of Ohio about coming up with a cost estimate for centralized services.

“We’re going to get to a point where I might say, I need five more court psychiatric clinic employees, I need 15 new pretrial services [staff], I need 300 new ankle bracelets, and I need all of that in order to get pretrial services,” Russo said, “once everybody’s on the same page of, ‘This is the process we’re going to use.’”

It's one of a few big court projects up in the air right now. The county is studying whether to fix up or rebuild the Justice Center. And last week, Russo suggested municipal courts should talk about merging.

There’s impatience among advocates who want to see progress more quickly.

Jocelyn Rosnick, the ACLU of Ohio’s policy director, pointed out that it’s been almost a year since a task force recommended centralized pretrial services.

“Implementation needs to happen now,” Rosnick said. “Things are moving fairly slowly, and I realize that we do not have a unified court system in Cuyahoga County, and that can cause some delays.”

Cleveland Moves Forward

As these talks have continued, Cleveland Municipal Court went ahead on its own. In September last year, weeks after several deaths at the jail began to appear in headlines, the court launched a pretrial services program for its defendants. 

“We spotted an issue where people were being detained because they did not have resources,” Administrative and Presiding Judge Michelle Earley said. “And that’s not fair and that’s not justice.”

The court is contracting with the nonprofit Oriana House. Defendants check in regularly either by phone or in person. Some wear GPS monitors.

Earley said the program is currently just for misdemeanor defendants. After the program crosses the half-year mark next month, the court plans to release more data on how the system is working.

“When we started our pretrial services department,” she said, “the situation in the jail made us increase our numbers probably a little faster than we had planned on doing.”

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