‘Public Safety’ Measures That Could Expand Cash Bail Race Through House

Legislation aimed at reversing a state supreme court decision on how judges set bail is making rapid progress in the Ohio House of Representatives. The measures could hit the floor this week, even though they were introduced just 10 days ago.

The plan would direct judges to weigh public safety when determining the dollar value of bail. Judges already consider public safety when it comes to setting non-financial requirements. On Tuesday, current and former prosecutors as well as a sitting common trial judge spoke in favor of the changes to the House Criminal Justice Committee.

Chairman Jeff LaRe, R-Violet Township, and Vice Chairman DJ Swearingen, R-Huron, co-sponsor the legislation and are taking a two-pronged approach. One proposal would alter state law, while the other attempts to present the idea to voters as a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

As chairman, LaRe has significant control over how quickly the measure can move through his committee, and that could be good news for the bail industry. Making public safety a consideration in setting the financial terms for pretrial release would tend to increase bail amounts. In their press release announcing the legislation, for example, LaRe and Swearingen highlight a case in Youngstown where a judge “drastically” reduced a murder suspect’s bail because he could not consider public safety in setting a dollar figure.

LaRe’s only obvious connection to the bail industry in terms of campaign contributions is $250 from Woody Fox’s Woody Fox Bail Bonds, but the rep seems pretty friendly to the industry. He spoke last September at the Ohio Bail Bondsmen Association Annual Conference.

Speaking after the committee, LaRe responded, “I wouldn’t say I was very close to the bail industry,” he explained. “They invited me to their conference. In fact, it was during my congressional career.”

LaRe ran in a special election last year to replace former Rep. Steve Stivers. He had the backing of the outgoing congressman, but lost in the primaries to the now representative. Mike Carey, Republican from Ohio.

According to the OBAA conference agenda, he was the only lawmaker to speak and was described as a state representative rather than a congressional candidate. His presentation was to cover “bail bond reform in Ohio” and a comparison of “bail bond procedures in different counties.” On Tuesday, however, LaRe described the talk differently.

“I was talking about my candidacy for Congress. We are not talking about criminal justice. He didn’t really go into bail reform,” LaRe said.

Shortly after the criminal justice committee hearing, House leaders placed both measures, HB 607 and HJR 2, on the House calendar for April 6 as “report pending.” The measures are already scheduled for a third hearing with the testimony of opponents that same morning.

“There is a possibility that it will come up on the floor this week,” House Speaker Bob Cupp said after putting it on the calendar. “We’ll see what the committee does with it.”

The rapid pace of the measure is notable because a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate have been working for nearly a year on different pieces of legislation that would move in the opposite direction: reduce reliance on cash bail. Last year’s OBAA conference kicked off the day with a panel of lobbyists discussing those bills. But Cupp said he was not involved in fast-tracking the LaRe and Swearingen legislation.

“No. It’s generated from members who think that considering public safety when setting bail is a good idea,” Cupp explained.

The speaker is a former Supreme Court justice, but on the question of whether he believes “public safety” is an appropriate consideration for cash bail, Cupp demurred.