The judge, Michael L. Nelson Sr. of Cleveland Municipal Court, said this week that he would release people charged with such crimes until their next court appearance, rather than holding them on bail, which many defendants cannot afford.
Defendants who are released must still agree to any conditions imposed, which could include electronic monitoring or regular check-ins.
“Six deaths means the jail is unsafe,” Judge Nelson said in a phone interview. “You shouldn’t die before we see you in court.”
Five of the six inmates were being held at the Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland, and one was at the Euclid City Jail, which is also run by the county, according to the county medical examiner.
The cause of death has yet to be determined in two of the cases, the most recent of which occurred on Tuesday. That prisoner, Allan Martin Gomez Roman, 44, died four days after he was arrested on a warrant stemming from a cocaine possession charge, Cleveland.com reported. Cuyahoga County officials have refused to release any details as to how he died. County spokeswoman Mary Louise Madigan would not say when Gomez was taken to the hospital or the circumstances surrounding the death, according to Cleveland.com. Had Gomez come across judge Nelson, he may still be alive today.
Two of the other men who died were found hanging in their cells, and two had drugs in their systems at the time of their deaths, the authorities said.
In a statement, the Cuyahoga County sheriff, Clifford Pinkney, said he would ask the County Council to pay for an independent expert to assess the jail system.
He added that the jails were dealing with an influx of people struggling with addiction and psychological problems.
A report released last year by the Pretrial Justice Institute found that the Cuyahoga County Jail, with 2,100 beds, had been operating at over 100 percent capacity, on average, in four of the previous five years.
The report, which was requested by local court officials and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, included a survey of all inmates released on a single day. It found that 73 percent of them were black. In the latest census, 53 percent of Cleveland’s residents were black.
Judge Nelson said that the jails remained overcrowded and that staffing levels were not sufficient to monitor all of the inmates. He was loath to place people in those facilities because they could not afford bail, he said.
Cash bail, which requires defendants to put up money or other assets to win their freedom, has been widely criticized in recent years. Some states and municipalities have taken steps to reduce its use; California recently abolished cash bail altogether. (The change takes effect next year.)
In Ohio, Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer spent more than a year examining the bail system in a series called “Justice for All.” Officials in parts of the state, including Cuyahoga County, have initiated changes to bail practices, and a statewide bill was introduced last year.
Critics of the cash bail system argue that defendants should be evaluated based on the risk they present to public safety, not on their financial situation.
Low-income defendants often turn to bail bond agents, which function as the payday lenders of the criminal justice world. Commercial bail is a $2 billion industry, and agents charge steep fees and can even arrest their clients.
Judge Nelson said the most recent death underscored the need to change bail practices and reduce overcrowding and strain on the jail system.
“If the balance of the county had implemented bail bond reform, there’s a good chance that young man would not be in jail, period,” he said.