Optional Justice

You needn't be Sam Miller to buy your way out of jail.

Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department 10-percent bond crazy Ohio laws
The words "Hurl yourself at a losing proposition" don't appear in Inspector Rob Havranek's job description, but that's what he does.

On any given day, more than a dozen of his guys at the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department are hunting fugitives. Some have violated parole. Most have decided that, had they shown up in court, it might have ended with a four-year vacation and a smelly new roommate named Bubba. All are wanted on felonies.

So deputies will descend on a neighborhood, plucking out fugitives the way one selects tomatoes at the West Side Market. For the particularly loathsome and dim-wittedly violent, the SWAT team is called. But this is largely a monotonous task -- studying up on last-known addresses, or simply grabbing a handful of warrants and seeing who you can bag. "If you throw enough shit against the wall, some of it sticks," Havranek says.

He has little choice but to take this approach. As of May 31, he was charged with solving 13,260 outstanding felony warrants.

We'll repeat that number: 13,260.

It's akin to arresting the entire city of Bay Village -- only you can't just hang around Heinen's to cuff them. These are rapists, dope dealers, burglars, and car thieves, spread throughout Northeast Ohio and beyond, hiding and very likely armed.

Most have bought their way out of prison for $1,000 or less.

Call it the county's system of optional justice, a situation born not from incompetence -- as you might expect -- but from the best of intentions.

There once was a time called the 1970s, when America had a different view of criminals. They weren't considered the scumbags we know and love today. Many believed they were simply misguided, perhaps even Victims of Oppression.

These were the blowback years following the race riots, civil-rights marches, and the twisted reign of famed cross-dresser J. Edgar Hoover. We'd come to acknowledge that our infallible system of justice might just be way fallible, and that cops didn't always make righteous busts.

But at the time, if you couldn't afford bail, you'd likely spend months sweating away in jail -- even if you were eventually found innocent. So was born the 10 percent bond. If a judge set bail at $10,000, you had to come up with only $1,000 to buy your freedom -- at least until trial.

It was a way of bringing affordability to that whole innocent-until-proven-guilty thing.

But scroll forward 30 years, to what sociologists call The Times of Great Weirdness, and one finds a changed view of criminality. The guy who jacks the pizza driver is no longer regarded as youthfully misguided and possibly oppressed. He is simply an asshole, as God intended. Yet now he's roaming the streets near you, having purchased -- along with 13,260 like-minded assholes -- the right to blow off his court date.

Give him points for sound economics. "The vast majority of bonds are $10,000 or less," says Common Pleas Presiding Judge Nancy McDonnell. "That's $1,000. But if you're looking at three years, you're thinking, OK, goodbye."

The problem is even worse in Cleveland Municipal Court, home to misdemeanors great and small. Though the clerk's office can't provide a concrete figure, its outstanding warrants are said to number between 90,000 and 130,000. It's akin to the entire populations of both Lakewood and Shaker blowing off their court dates.

"You're keeping a lot of repeat offenders on the streets," says Joe Rice, a spokesman for the Ohio Bail Agents Association. "I'm sure they don't want people to languish in jail, but if they don't appear in court, then this is a farce."

He points to one Cincinnati guy who had 30 warrants. Minimal bond, Rice argues, is "obviously not a deterrent."

So state bondsmen are hoping to do away with the 10-percent rule -- or at least have it employed more sparingly. Studies have shown that if judges require surety bonds -- meaning someone puts up, say, Mom's house as collateral -- they're 28 percent more likely to show up for court. After all, even assholes have a hard time screwing their mothers.

It would seem an easy remedy. But it isn't. This is government, where up is down and right is wrong. Truth be told, we actually need tens of thousands of people to blow off justice for the system to function.

While politicians create harsher and harsher penalties -- how better for a guy with hairspray to look tough? -- they conveniently neglect the back end, which says we need some place to put the rotten bastards. The county already has "more people in our jail than it's rated for," says Judge McDonnell. Overflow is shipped to city jails throughout the area.

But there's nowhere near enough space or money to provide thousands more with concrete-and-steel accommodations.

"That's a touchy subject," says Havranek. "We can only arrest enough people that our jail space allows. We can put every single deputy we have out on the streets, and we could not house them anywhere."

The answer, of course, would be to build a new, bigger jail. Cuyahoga County already accounts for 25 percent of Ohio's prison population -- even if we do suck at catching guys. Taking even a few hundred more fugitives off the street might dilute Cleveland's standing as the Seventh Most Violent City in America ™.

But it took years to locate a site for a juvenile jail. If a new adult complex follows a similar path, we'll have to wait for Sam Miller to sell commissioners a hazardous waste site for 10 times its value, spend years and millions cleaning said toxins, then endure cost overruns and a lengthy bribery trial for the chief contractor. Expect it to be completed by the year 3019.

In the meantime, make peace with the carjacker next door. He'll be living a long, unincarcerated life, whether you like it or not.

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