Commendably, Ohio General Assembly members of both parties are crafting legislation that addresses Ohio’s unfair bail and license-suspension practices — most recently in a bill introduced Dec. 7 that would reduce the number of defendants held in jail merely because they cannot afford bail costs. That proposal is House Bill 439, sponsored by two Republicans — Reps. Jonathan Dever of Madeira, near Cincinnati, and Timothy Ginter of Salem, about 68 miles southeast of Cleveland.
HB 439 addresses a chronic Ohio criminal justice problem detailed by cleveland.com in the ongoing “Justice for All” series. Cleveland.com’s Peter Krouse reports that the Dever-Ginter bill would require courts to use a “validated risk assessment tool” when setting bail, rather than varying informal measures, such as the nature of the crime charged.
Introduction of the bill follows lengthy advocacy for bail reform by cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, after uncovering unequal treatment of defendants based on their ability to pay, with too many stuck in jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail.
Toledo’s Lucas County and, most recently, the Cleveland Municipal Court systems have adopted the Laura and John Arnold Foundation data-based risk-assessment tool, giving judges more insights into flight and community risks when considering whether to let someone out of jail on personal recognizance, that is, without needing to pay bail. But statewide reform is needed.
Tackling a related justice reform issue, on Wednesday, Ohio’s House, in a 92-1 vote, passed Substitute House Bill 336, sponsored by Reps. John Barnes, a Cleveland Democrat, and Dave Greenspan, a Westlake Republican. (The lone “No” came from Rep. Niraj Antani, a suburban Dayton Republican.)
HB 336, Krouse has reported, “would reduce or waive fees for drivers who have had their licenses suspended for more than 18 months” via a six-month debt reduction and waiver program to be created by the state Registrar for Motor Vehicles.
The state Senate should act swiftly on this overdue measure.
According to the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission’s analysis, a driver applying for reinstatement under HB 336 would have to be indigent and comply with all other court-ordered penalties. Not eligible would be drivers for whom alcohol, drugs or a deadly weapon were elements in the offense.
Also pending in the legislature is Senate Bill 160, introduced on June 1 by state Sen. Sandra Williams, a Cleveland Democrat. Among her co-sponsors is Republican Sen. Matt Huffman of Lima.
SB 160 would allow courts to require community service in lieu of a driver’s license reinstatement fee should a court determine the offender cannot reasonably pay the fee.
Unfortunately, SB 160 is still in the Senate’s Local Government, Public Safety and Veterans Affairs Committee. It needs to get a hearing, and a vote.
As Krouse has reported, Ohio driver’s licenses can be suspended for a large number of reasons, and the suspensions can have devastating consequences for the working poor if they can’t afford to pay the reinstatement fee. That situation is aggravated by current practices that can layer extra fees and penalties and additional suspensions for those who aren’t able to pay — and sometimes, in violation of the law, may try to drive to work.
HB 336 would address this issue by allowing all suspensions to be lifted if the lowest reinstatement fee is paid off. It’s a wise reform. Still, HB 160, by allowing community service in lieu of monetary payment for those without means, could help prevent the accumulation of unmanageable license-suspension debt in the first place. Prompt action is merited on all three measures.