Despite his previous claims that the cash bail system worked just fine in Hamilton County and that the Prosecutor’s Office did not need to change any of its bail practices, Joe Deters has finally conceded that he could have done more to reduce jail overcrowding after all.
He has finally admitted, through his office’s recent action on bail, that all along he could have done more to ensure people were not sitting in jail because they were too poor to pay.
While I am glad Deters took steps to release non-violent offenders without cash bail, it should not have taken a pandemic to get there.
Jails have been too full for too long. Mass incarceration and overcrowding have been issues long before COVID-19 and will continue to be issues after.
Justice should not be dependent upon a person’s wealth or ethnicity.
The blindfolded Lady of Justice is the ultimate symbol of the idea that in our judicial system there should be equality under the law no matter who you are, what you look like or where on the socio-economic ladder you stand.
Similarly, one’s access to cash should not determine whether or not they wait for their day in court at home or in a jail cell. But unfortunately, lack of access to cash, not a guilty conviction, is precisely the thing that determines whether someone sits in jail after they have been accused of crimes.
It is an injustice to usurp someone’s freedom, place them behind bars, end their employment, jeopardize their childcare and separate them from their families, simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.
Nonviolent offenders who cannot afford to pay bail should not be incarcerated before they’ve even had a trial. Nor should other nonviolent offenders who are indigent be forced to pay their way out of jail.
Such a system serves no reasonable purpose. In fact, there is no evidence showing that attaching monetary conditions to pre-trial release makes it more likely that a person will appear in court or increases public safety.
For as long as we continue to rely on an outdated cash bail system, we will have overcrowded jails and miscarriages of justice.
This isn’t just a socio-economic issue either. Cash bail disproportionately affects people of color. African Americans and Latinos, on average, are charged higher bail amounts than Whites. In Hamilton County alone, over 80% of pre-trial detainees are Black.
I am well aware that there are people who need to be in jail to protect the public. As a former federal and state prosecutor, I helped send dangerous people there. But I cannot condone the inappropriate jailing of members of our community.
I am not alone in viewing this as a systemic problem. Bail reform has been embraced across party and ideology. Ohio even took the step recently to form a bail reform task force. There is simply no reason for the elimination of cash bail for nonviolent offenders to be limited to a pandemic response.
Deters should get on the right side of history and embrace the future without waiting for a crisis.
Our community deserves a prosecutor with the courage to admit when our system has fallen short of its highest ideals and the vision to make the reforms that we need. Deters has not done that.
Better late than never, but still not good enough.