Portune gets bird's eye view in court
There were no $1 million dollar bonds set in arraignment court on Tuesday. At least not while Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune was there.
Most bonds set Tuesday, if any, were less than $5,000. The highest was $250,000 on a shooting case with "life threatening injuries". Many defendants were released on electronic monitoring.
The commissioner was invited by Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Brad Greenberg to sit in on a courtroom session Tuesday to get a birds-eye view of what the judges do.
"I invited him because I know he’s interested I the issues. I thought it would be a good idea to see what happens in Courtroom A," said Greenberg.
The invitation came after Portune made a controversial suggestion that the county keep track of the bonds each judge sets to see which judges are contributing to jail overcrowding. Portune made the suggestion after a different judge refused to reduce a $1 million bond on an 18-year-old $21 theft case (it was later reduced by another judge). Portune reasoned that if too-high bonds are constantly being set on low-level cases, those defendants unnecessarily take up needed jail beds.
UPDATE: So here's what Portune learned.
1) It’s a fast-paced machine.
“Just the sheer volume of cases doesn’t give the judges a whole lot of time to reflect on what needs to be done," he said. "They’re very dependent on a system of other players all working together toward the administration of justice. I didn’t see any breakdowns there today.”
2) Electronic monitoring was used a lot.
“He used it, it seemed, almost every other case," Portune said. "One of the oft-discussed notions is that the court should use things like electronic monitoring and they aren’t doing that very much. I didn’t see that. It was used quite frequently.”
Portune also saw two areas where he expects reforms could increase efficiency.
1) When someone is charged with a felony and misdemeanor stemming from the same crime, the charges should be handled together. Currently, the charges are handled by separate courts which creates more court hearings and drags out the case for longer than necessary.
2) Bails shouldn’t be higher just because the defendant lives out of county. Currently a standard $1,000 bond jumps to $2,500 just because the person lives in Clermont or Boone county. That could swell the jail population.
Portune plans to sit in again sometime this week. He is holding firm to his belief that judges’ decisions need to be tracked.
"Beyond bonds I think we should develop a system that provides a snapshot of what judges are doing. How many cases are being handled? How many were disposed of in a time frame? How many were handled in the time frame that the Ohio Supreme Court espouses? How are sentences on identical charges? How are bonds on identical charges?," he said. "All these things present a snapshot of the kind of job our judges are doing and provide general public a better understanding of the job they are doing. That type of thing will be necessary in accountability that justice is being meted out in our courts. I’m not saying this to say anyone’s doing a bad job or a great job. Just that the data should be out there.”
UPDATE: Portune gets praise from NAACP
NAACP President Christopher Smitherman gave Portune kudos for his efforts to track bonds.
“The bond issue is one leg of many legs (of the justice system) we’re concerned about. We are happy to see Commissioner Portune move in this direction,” said Smitherman. “This is a positive step that has not gone unnoticed.”
The NAACP had gone against Portune when he tried (unsuccessfully) to increase the sales tax last year for a new jail and public safety programs. Smitherman had claimed the system was "broken."
Greenberg dealt Tuesday with charges ranging from probation violations and driving infractions to more serious charges like robbery and assault.
Portune pored over courtroom documents, asked questions and listened to more than a dozen cases. during the roughly 75 minutes he was in there. After most of the cases, Greenberg and Portune huddled at the bench for a moment and Greenberg explained things about the case adn the documentation.
"“He was asking about the information that Pretrial provides to the judges,” said Greenburg. “That’s the main information I use in setting bonds.”
For example, the cover sheet for the case summarizes the person’s prior criminal history and whether they’ve failed to appear in the past. It also displays the “point system.” Defendants get positive or negative points based on things like whether they have jobs, houses, or have been on probation before. Points are another factor in setting bonds, he explained.
"He was asking what some of these things mean," Greenberg said.
Portune spoke up just a couple times in the courtroom.
“When was he sentenced?” asked Portune after one case in which the defendant had been sentenced to prison for a drug conviction, but had not been transferred because some pending misdemeanor charges had not been dealt with. “April 4th” came the answer.
Portune has expressed concern about whether inmates are held for inordinate amounts of time in the justice center between the time they’re sentenced to prison and the time they’re transferred. A Criminal Justice Commission on which Portune and several judges sit on are looking into all these issues.
In another case, Portune asked for some explanation about the defendant’s past jail stay.
He also inquired at one point, when the glass was installed separating the judge and court staff from the audience. The judge wasn’t’ sure. Portune eventually got his answer from someone else in the room.
Portune said this was his first time observing court proceedings from this viewpoint. Portune is a civil law attorney.