Cleveland-Marshall College of Law students Ciara Miller, Joseph Nelson and Patrick Sennish jumped at the opportunity to assist in evaluating Cuyahoga County’s process for bail and pretrial release with Professor Jonathan Witmer-Rich in a pop-up practicum he supervised this fall.
Dean Lee Fisher asked Professor Witmer-Rich to serve as a subcommittee co-chair on the Cuyahoga County Bail Task Force, a group convened by Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Administrative Judge John Russo '92 to study Cuyahoga County’s system of bail and pretrial release and determine whether any improvements could be made to the process. Witmer-Rich developed the practicum to give C|M|LAW students the opportunity to learn about bail and pretrial release, as well as the process of legal reform at the county level.
Sennish was motivated to participate in this practicum after learning the tragic story of Kalief Browder, a New York teenager who was unable to post bail after being accused of stealing a backpack and spent three years in prison before the case was dropped.
“I am a firm believer in the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ tenet of our justice system,” said Sennish. “Imprisoning a person who has not been convicted of a crime, simply because he/she cannot financially afford to buy back their freedom, is a tremendous injustice. (Kalief’s) story, and others like it, inspired me to work towards change in this area.”
The students participated with Witmer-Rich by reviewing reports on best practices for bail and pretrial release by national organizations, and wrote response papers for the benefit of the task force. They also reviewed information collected by the Bail Task Force, as well as a report written by the Pretrial Justice Institute about bail practices in Cuyahoga County.
The three students attended several meetings and conference calls in connection with the Bail Task Force. They held discussions with the professor to review their research, where they identified some of the recurring problems in bail and pretrial release, including consideration of risk assessment tools, the role of money and the problems facing indigent defendants.
“Participating in meetings has given the students an appreciation for how different participants in the justice system view the problem differently, and helped them realize how complex the problems can be,” explained Witmer-Rich. “The students have learned what the best solutions look like on paper, but have also gone further to see how difficult it can be to translate ideas on paper into real solutions in the criminal justice system.”
“Working with a brilliant legal scholar such as Professor Witmer-Rich was incredibly beneficial,” explained Sennish. “He was also very open to hearing input from us students, which made the work enjoyable. Professor Witmer-Rich has a great sense of realism that provided understanding of how the system actually works.”
One of the students is continuing to work on the bail task force project into the spring and will assist in drafting recommendations for the Task Force as part of its final report, to be completed in the first half of 2018.