Commentary

We need cash bail reform to help fix the broken justice system in Ohio

July 27, 2021 12:20 am

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“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

I remember the first time I watched the Wizard of Oz. I was fascinated by the storytelling, mesmerized by the bright colors and exciting action, and terrified of “The Great and Powerful Oz.” That is until Toto, Dorothy’s adorable and fearless dog pulls back the curtain to reveal that there was no great or powerful Oz. There was just an old man using a ruckus to create fear to hold onto power. 

Criminal justice reforms, like those in the Ohio legislature, both move us past a shadow of justice to actual justice and start the work of rebuilding trust in a broken and failing criminal justice system. House Bill 315 and Senate Bill 182 make the decisions about whether someone who is arrested is allowed to be at home until trial or must remain in jail based on their level of threat to the community, and/or their flight risk. As someone who has worked to bail people out who were being held for protesting for justice, to having an angry outburst to someone trying to take advantage of them, I can tell you that these bills are absolutely necessary to make our system more just and to make our communities truly safer.

Earlier this year I received a call from an activist in the state named Taylor Pennington. Taylor told me the story of a young woman who was in jail in another city in the state, and because there was not a local bail fund, she was hoping that the Cincinnati Bail Fund would be able to help. Taylor’s friend was charged with assault due to an altercation with an ex-boyfriend who had been harassing her for months. By the time Taylor was able to contact me, her friend had been sitting in jail for over 60 days. Her bail was set at $100,000. We could not pay 10% to get her released. While options to pay her bail were being pursued, family and friends were caring for her kids and pooling money together to pay her rent so that she would not be homeless if she were to be released on bond. 

We made the decision to help this young mother out, believing that being at home, in the community of people who loved and supported her, she would have the best environment in which to make the life-altering decision of whether to take a plea deal or go to trial so that the complex details of this unfortunate case could be heard. Even if she were convicted or pleaded guilty, the time at home would help her prepare her children for what was going to happen, so that she could take accountability with dignity. 

While we were working to figure out the logistics of making such a large transaction, this mother, still in jail, isolated from her family, was informed that prosecutors were pursuing the maximum sentence of 12 years in prison. You can imagine her thinking about what that would mean for her children; the birthdays she would miss, proms, graduations, and who knows what else. She had already lost her job, and coming to court looking unstable almost always biases a jury and most times even judges against a person. In the face of what must have seemed like overwhelming odds, she took a plea deal and accepted up to 6 years of prison time.

There are many conversations that could be had about whether this mother should be in prison, and what justice and accountability really look like. For the purposes of this conversation, I would argue that no one in Lima was safer because this mother was sitting in jail waiting for her day in court. Under House Bill 315 and Senate Bill 182 this decision would have been based on her level of threat to the community, not her ability to raise $100,000. The only thing that might have been threatened was the prosecutor’s ability to intimidate her into taking a plea deal.  

Perhaps this is the reason that Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters wrote an op-ed that was picked up by the Cincinnati Enquirer and Columbus Dispatch, which railed against House Bill 315 and Senate Bill 182 without saying one substantive thing about the bills. Perhaps that is why he spent his time railing against Black Lives Matter activists, the same activists he was trying to stand up for in both of his failed attempts to prosecute University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing, for shooting Sam DuBose in the head at a traffic stop in 2015. Perhaps this is why he tried to stoke fears of Cincinnati becoming one of those big, scary cities. Perhaps Joe Deters is afraid that enough people are beginning to see that he is not the one who keeps us safe. We keep us safe, and we do that best when we create systems that work together for everyone’s safety and well-being, even Black people.

Perhaps Joe Deters is afraid we are seeing him as the man behind the curtain.

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Nelson Pierce
Nelson Pierce

Noted preacher, community organizer, public theologian and activist, Rev. Nelson Jerome Pierce, Jr. was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio as the son of two preachers and small business owners, who opened their heart and their home to the community around them. Rev. Pierce earned an BA from Washington University in St. Louis, and a Masters of Divinity (MDiv) from Eden Theological Seminary. Rev. Pierce is currently the senior pastor of Beloved Community Church in Cincinnati, OH (currently accessible to all via Zoom). He is also the Director of Faith and Race Programming and Baptist Chaplain at Xavier University.

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