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Metal bars, metal beds and benches, cement floors and harsh lighting make for a stark environment at the 50-year-old Greene County Jail, as seen here on a third-floor women’s block. (Photo by Audrey Hackett)

Efforts seek bail reform

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As of Tuesday afternoon last week, 225 people awaiting trial were being held at one of two Greene County jail facilities — the downtown jail and the Adult Detention Center. Many of those individuals remained behind bars over the holidays, lacking the bail money that allows release until a scheduled court date.

More specifically, nearly 70% of the people detained in Greene County at the time of a 2018 report — conducted amid exploration concerning construction of a new jail — were awaiting judgment and were unable to pay bail.

That’s unacceptable, say supporters of a growing movement to change, or completely eliminate, the rules supporting cash bail. And it’s especially egregious during the COVID-19 pandemic, as congregate settings have been shown to be particularly vulnerable to spread of the disease.

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Among activists organizing around the issue are members of the Yellow Springs-based Greene County Coalition for Compassionate Justice, or GCCCJ, and the Ohio ACLU.

In a recent Zoom meeting of the GCCCJ, attended by about a dozen area residents, the discussion noted that holding nonviolent offenders who had yet to be tried was counter to the edict “innocent until proven guilty.”

“It’s immoral and unfair and against the Constitution,” Greer Aeschbury, an ACLU organizer who attended the Zoom meeting as a guest, said in a follow-up phone call.

“It’s wealth-based detention,” she said of the bail system. “If you are rich, you can buy yourself out of jail.”

The results for those unable to pay can be devastating, she continued.

“Even if it’s just three days, that can have a huge impact on your life,” Aeschbury said. Loss of income, loss of employment, the disruption of care for children or elders are all possible outcomes. An innocent ruling doesn’t bring those losses back, she noted.

In a separate phone call, villager and GCCCJ member Kate LeVesconte said the group believes the issue has support on both sides of the political aisle. Conservative allies cite the expense of housing individuals pre-trial and oppose what they consider “big government” control, LeVesconte said.

“Our focus is from a more compassionate viewpoint,” she said of the GCCCJ.

The progressive coalition evolved out of a citizens group that last spring successfully opposed a countywide sales tax increase that would have funded construction of a new, larger jail, and consists mostly of villagers.

“We have concerns about the aging jail, but think it should be as small as possible,” LeVesconte said. “Reducing cash bail will decrease the need [for more cells].”

In opposing a larger facility, the group also called for shifting the focus from incarcerating more people to putting more tax dollars toward treatment for drug addiction and mental health, “to look deeper into the problems that lead people to do things that are not legal,” LeVesconte said.

Reducing jail numbers, and the related costs, by reforming the bail system also would save the county money at a time of financial struggle, she added.

“We think it is a win-win-win prospect,” she said.

According to Aeschbury, a fiscal impact analysis completed by an economist working with the Ohio ACLU last year estimated a savings of between $199 and $264 million to the state’s counties with the reform of the cash bail system.

“That’s huge,” Aeschbury said.

Safety concerns

The bail reform discussion has “become especially relevant in light of the coronavirus,” she said. “Jail is one of the worst places to be for disease spread.”

The Greene County Jail has had up to 45 positive cases, about 25 among inmates and 20 in staff, since the first reported case there in September, according to Jail Administrator Kirk Keller on Wednesday morning. Keller told the News this fall that jail staff are in daily communication with the county health department.

On Wednesday, Keller reported that two inmates were being held in isolation after testing positive, and one staff person was due to return to work Jan. 8 after testing positive last month. Most recent state data also shows 10 inmates in quarantine. There have been no deaths or COVID-related hospitalizations out of the county facilities, Keller said.

According to Keller, the county quarantines inmates before sending them to state facilities, but not necessarily those coming into the county.

“We don’t have the space to quarantine everybody who comes into our jail from other facilities,” Keller said. He said the ADC-housed Greene Leaf program, which addresses addiction issues, has been suspended with the pandemic, and the area set aside for its participants is being used as a pod for quarantining.

“When we had our first inmate cases in late September, we emptied out one of the pods in the ADC to prepare for the worst,” he said later in the fall. “We were worried about what we would do if we got rapid spread. Inmates with symptoms or who have tested positive are assigned to that pod.”

Testing is done “based on symptoms” by nurses at the jails, according to GCPH epidemiologist Don Brannen. Keller said temperatures are taken daily, and inmates coming from other facilities are also tested. A doctor comes in once a week, Keller said. All inmates and staff are required to wear masks.

“I think we’ve done a good job, but I want to be humble in this,” he said.

GCPH’s Brannen said he had received some complaints from families of inmates about a lack of distancing in the jails. Keller said inmates are distancing “as much as they can.”

Keller said the daily county jail population typically stands at 215–220.

Bail changes already in place

Effective in July 2020, the Ohio Legislature made some significant changes concerning pretrial release and detention, with Ohio Criminal Rule 46, according to Court Administrator Mark Donatelli.

The resulting policy directs the court to release defendants under the least restrictive conditions as long as they meet three goals to the court’s satisfaction, Donateilli wrote in a recent email to the News. Those goals are: “assure the defendant’s appearance in court; protect the safety of any person or the community; and eliminate the possibility that the defendant will obstruct the criminal justice process,” according to Donatelli.

“In light of these changes, the court has adopted a bond protocol which in practice results in the court’s magistrates having bond/bail hearings nearly every day,” he wrote, adding that the court has a dedicated staff person, a member of the Adult Probation Department, who acts as a bond liaison to provide the magistrates with relevant information regarding a defendant.

COVID-19 does not play a factor in setting bail or sentencing, he said. But the Rule 46 does mean, “we’re releasing more more people than we have in the past,” he added. “Bail reform is happening.”

The Yellow Springs Village Council signaled its support of bail reform efforts at its Dec. 21 meeting when it unanimously passed a resolution calling for the end of cash bail and “robust support” for Criminal Rule 46, cited by Donatelli.

In presenting the resolution for Council’s consideration, member Laura Curliss said that energy around the issue is building across the state.

Villager Pat Dewees, a member of GCCCJ, told the Council that other parts of the country had already done away with cash bail, including the states of New Jersey and Alaska, and the District of Columbia as well.

The time has come for Ohio to act also, she said.

“A lot of people have suffered a lot with this system of punishing poor people,” she said.

Next steps

“Our goal in this coming year is to see what alliances we can forge with the criminal justice community — judges, prosecuting attorneys,” the GCCCJ’s LeVesconte said.

Aeschbury said much can be accomplished on the county level, as the court system in Ohio is county-based. But the State Legislature and Ohio Supreme Court also play a role in creating statewide policy.

In an effort to form and support a network of activities across the state, as the new year gets underway, the Ohio ACLU is hosting an online conference for grassroots group leaders on Martin Luther King Day.

LeVesconte is excited about the potential.

“The time is right for common sense bail reform,” she concluded.

*Audrey Hackett contributed reporting to this story.

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