Editorial: Ohio’s unfair bail system is akin to debtors’ jail

You can never get a day back.

We imagine that reality is not lost on people such as Anthony C. Wofford III.

Before being acquitted on April 16, he was stuck in jail for nearly 1,156 days on charges accusing him of killing his boyfriend.

And when Wofford was found not guilty, he got nothing to compensate him for the loss of more than three years of his life.

As in the rest of this nation, you’re innocent in Ohio until proven guilty before Lady Justice, her scale, sword and blindfold.

That technical fact does not mean you won’t find yourself trapped for days, months or even years in what is the modern day equivalent of a debtors’ jail. If you can’t afford bail, you sit and wait for a judge or jury to decide your fate – or you plead guilty to a crime you may or may not have committed.

“Incarcerating nonviolent offenders pretrial is a needless waste of taxpayer money,” Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said in May. ”(Bail) was not meant to be a mechanism to keep people in jail pretrial.”

Congress outlawed debtors’ jails in 1833, but here in Ohio, people with means routinely buy their freedom with bail money. The poor – a disproportionate number of them people of color – are left to sweat it out behind bars.

In 2017, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction found that more than 35% of local jail inmates were there awaiting trial. The bulk of them could not come up with bail money.

Lawmakers know this fact well.

“Under our current (bail) system, a rich and dangerous defendant can pay to secure their release, while poor defendants languish in jail pretrial, losing their job, their housing, and even in some cases, the custody of their children,” State Rep. Brett Hudson Hillyer, R-Uhrichsville, wrote in a recent guest column. “How does such a system promote public safety and equal justice under the law? As a practicing attorney, I have seen this all too often in different counties across the State.”

Hillyer is the co-sponsor of the House version of a bill that would end wealth-based detention for non-violent crimes. It would require courts to start from a presumption that most people deserve to be released while awaiting trial.

… Wofford maintained he acted in self-defense when he stabbed 27-year-old Kendrick Wilkerson May 31, 2018.

Cellphone video seen by jurors showed Wilkerson attacking Wofford before the stabbing.

Among other things, Wilkerson slammed Wofford’s head against a door and dragged him across the floor by his hair. Wofford eventually lunged toward a kitchen where he grabbed the knife used in the stabbing.

“Even though our client was acquitted, this was such a miscarriage of justice,” defense attorney Brian Joslyn said after the verdict.

Wofford, 28, had no previous felony record, was held in the county jail for nearly three years on a $500,000 bond.

… A recent Dispatch investigation found that 41 defendants were held in pretrial detention for more than two years in the Franklin County Jail. Eighteen were charged with murder or aggravated murder. The rest faced rape, human trafficking, and high-level drug offense charges. These are the most serious offenses.

To be sure, the public must be protected from dangerous criminals, but suspect rights should not be trampled either.

Lawmakers should seek solutions to ensure that bail is not excessive, the true nature of the allegations are considered and that defendants receive speedy trials. …

— Columbus Dispatch, Aug. 8, 2021