Cincinnati City Council April 17 passed a motion directing city prosecutors to forego monetary bail for nonviolent misdemeanor suspects awaiting trial.
Council member P.G. Sittenfeld, a Democrat, partnered with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, local law professors and the AMOS Project on the initiative. Sittenfeld's fellow Democratic council members Wendell Young and Greg Landsman, as well as Republican council member Jeff Pastor, support the measure.
Bail is generally a method used to try and ensure that defendants awaiting trial show up to their court dates instead of fleeing. However, some research suggests it isn't effective toward that end, and critics say it instead simply penalizes those who do not have the money to pay to get out of prison while they wait for their day in court.
“We know that the inequities in our justice system more severely impact people who are low-income and people who are from communities of color,” Sittenfeld said during a news conference about the motion today. “To be the fair, just, beloved community that we all want to be, we need to face these challenges head on.”
Pastor said the issue isn't a partisan one, but "a human issue."
"As an African American, folks who look like me often feel like they don't have access to the justice system," he said.
It is unclear exactly how many people the initiative would affect, supporters acknowledged. While between two-thirds and three-quarters of those in the Hamilton County Justice Center are there awaiting trial, Northern Kentucky University Chase College of Law professor Jennifer Kinsley says it isn't evident how many are there on misdemeanor versus felony charges.
Beyond numbers, supporters say that the issue boils down to simple economic fairness.
"It is often said that you are treated better in this country when you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent," University of Cincinnati Blue Ash professor Wendy Calaway said. "I hope that this is the start of a conversation about moving away from that kind of justice."
State Rep. Catherine Ingram and State Sen. Cecil Thomas, who sits on a task force on criminal justice reform, say efforts are underway in the Ohio General Assembly to enact similar reforms on the state level.
Sittenfeld also said he hoped the legislation would inspire nearby municipalities, including Hamilton County, to adopt similar policies.