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Megan Shanahan is a Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge
Judges ought to protect the public.
After 10 years as a trial court judge, I keep that in mind every day.
Recently, two of my fellow judicial colleagues — Reginald J. Routson of Hancock County Common Pleas Court and Steven K. Dankof of Montgomery County Common Pleas Court — wrote a guest column and professed to “set the record straight” about Ohio law and a proposed constitutional amendment involving the issue of bail and public safety.
I respect all my fellow jurists, but their column was long on spin and short on logic.
Sadly, they derisively labeled those with a different viewpoint than them (arguably the majority of Ohioans) as the “self-appointed law-and-order crowd.”
Yet every judge is elected by the people expressly to preserve and protect law and order for everyone.
One of the responsibilities of Ohio judges is setting bail for those accused of crimes.
What my fellow judges omitted in their column is that the overwhelming majority of Ohioans accused of crimes are given a bail amount of zero dollars and asked only to, essentially, promise that they’ll show up for their next court date.
Untethered from the grim reality of violent crime in our community, those who oppose the common sense bail reform contained in the proposed constitutional amendment ignore this.
They sketch a crude caricature of wealthy defendants benefiting from bail rules while the poorer defendants suffer. This argument ignores both the facts of the real world and Ohio law.
Many things factor in bail decisions
When someone is charged with a serious felony like murder, rape or domestic violence, they’re brought before a judge who makes an important decision on bail based on many different factors. Ohio’s law on bail is very clear.
It requires a judge to take a number of things into account when setting the type, conditions and amount of bail.
Some of those factors include the details of the alleged crime, the nature and evidence regarding who the crime was committed against and whether the defendant has access to a gun or other dangerous weapon.
These factors, many centered around protecting the community or victim, had been applied by judges for decades.
Ohio Supreme Court misinterpreted Ohio law
Sounds good, right?
Yet that came to a crashing halt in January of this year when four justices of the Ohio Supreme Court inexplicably decided that Ohio’s law didn’t say what it clearly says and forbid judges from ever considering the threat a defendant poses to the victim or the community when setting the amount of bail.
The case that went to the Ohio Supreme Court came from Hamilton County, where I serve as a common pleas court judge.
Since the slim majority of the Ohio Supreme Court decided that public safety or the safety of a victim can never be a factor when setting bail amounts, there have been countless defendants in Hamilton County, and all over Ohio, who have had their bond lowered as a result. These cases we’re talking about are violent felonies.
There’s little need to protect the community from those accused of drug possession or nonviolent crimes. Such cases usually don’t justify high bail amounts.
Amendment would require judges to consider public safety
And let’s be clear what this proposed constitutional amendment would do and what it wouldn’t do. If passed by Ohioans, all it would do is require judges to consider public safety as one of the many factors when determining bail amounts.
Many other factors—the rights of the defendant, their ties to the community, the likelihood they’ll flee and not return to court—also must be considered by judges. What’s that mean?
It means Ohio law will once again empower judges elected by citizens to make decisions to protect the rights of the defendant and the safety of the community. The idea that Ohio judges somehow can’t protect both at the same time is truly the most puzzling argument I’ve seen in recent years.
I trust judges to make the right decision, as they remain accountable to the citizens who elect them. I also trust that Ohioans will overwhelmingly vote to restore common sense and bring about reasonable bail reform when given the chance this November.
Megan Shanahan is a Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Hamilton County judge Public safety should be factor on bail| Opinion