The Judge Who Made His Own Bail Rules to Stop Jail Deaths

Judge Michael Nelson in his courtroom.

Source Nathan C. Ward for OZY

Why you should care

Because no one should die in jail waiting for their court date.

Fair and Equal: An OZY series on fixing the skewed scales of American justice. Fair and Equal: An OZY series on fixing the skewed scales of American justice.

It was after the fifth inmate died at the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center when Judge Michael Nelson finally decided to break his silence.

In four months, they’d died for various reasons: some for being refused necessary medication, others by hanging when guards were asleep. Nelson was shy of two years on his municipal court seat when Allen Gomez, a 44-year-old on a $1,500 bond for five grams of cocaine possession, died of causes not yet known.

“And people still acted like this was new!” Nelson says. “But it wasn’t new. This had been going on for years. Because that’s the mentality at the jail, this institutional approach to inmate management. Who knows what else has gone unreported?”

It’s only the beginning of what Nelson sees as a wider sweep of Cleveland’s system.

Nelson already knew the jail’s 2,240 population was over capacity by about 500. Then, U.S. marshals would go on to release a report depicting the jail as a horror show: Inmates were routinely denied access to showers, toothbrushes and toilet paper when in “Red Zone” lockdown. Unused cafeteria food was stored in office areas that “reeked of dead vermin.” Pregnant women were sleeping on floor mattresses. Juveniles were thrown in with 11 others in cells made for two.

So Nelson, 70, became the first judge in the Cleveland area to simply stop setting high bonds for nonviolent arraignees who, unable to pay the $500 or so, would otherwise spend days, weeks or months sitting among convicted inmates.

Other judges in Texas and North Carolina have pushed bail reform — reducing or eliminating the cash bail bond process in the courts — as a way to curb mass incarceration, and anti-bail prosecutors from Philadelphia to Jackson, Mississippi, are proliferating. But Nelson was different in taking action into his own hands to deal with a jail crisis. If he himself simply stopped sending so many people to the county jail, conditions would improve. He’d be saving inmates from dying before they were even proven guilty.

“They’re mostly misdemeanors, not murders,” Nelson says while eating lunch at Karl’s Inn of the Barristers, a diner in the shadow of the beige, 13-floor jail on East Third Street. “People being picked up for open containers who sit around until their court date. I mean, instead of just giving these people a citation that says, ‘Come to court,’ we’re going to arrest them and take them to jail? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

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Nelson with his parents and siblings.

Source Nathan C. Ward for OZY

Nelson confronted the law at an early age. When Nelson was 2, his father was killed while attempting to rob a Cleveland bus driver. As a teenager, his family moved in and out of east side Cleveland housing projects. Nelson’s mother set the shy but rambunctious student away to Kingsway College in Oshawa, Canada, where he met many draft dodgers and civil rights advocates “burnt out on the movement.” Instead, he returned to Ohio energized for revolution in Black American politics. In 1968, Nelson attended the historically Black Central State University and weighed signing up for Vietnam until he had a scrap with a ROTC drill commander. Instead, Nelson took a job working for the mayoral campaign of a childhood friend, helping the 40-year-old Carl Stokes get elected as the first-ever Black mayor of a major U.S. city.

Politics remained a constant, including a stint on Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign, even as Nelson ended up working as a schoolteacher, forming his own Alliance for Concerned Teachers to back up Black educators facing budget shortfalls. In his 30s, he followed a lifelong dream to attend law school and became a defense attorney, taking up cases from homicide to “neighbors getting into a scrape after one threw paint on the other’s car.” In the midst of that, Nelson married his high school girlfriend, Donna Kelso (who would act as his campaign manager), and the two would have four children and five grandchildren. He spends his free time out of the legal world catching plays or playing golf, frequently with police officers. “You don’t always have to agree with people,” Nelson explains, “but sometimes you can set aside your differences on the course.”

Brenda Bickerstaff, who worked for Nelson during his defense attorney days, says Nelson’s penchant for details — especially scrutinizing police reports during trial — would carry into his eventual bid for municipal judge. “Murder cases, robbery cases, trial cases — he never backed down,” Bickerstaff says. “He’s not scared of anyone!”

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Nelson with his family campaigning in 2017.

His political career has faced its setbacks, from a failed run for mayor in 2005 to a rape accusation late in his 2017 campaign for judge (a grand jury declined to prosecute the matter, which Nelson wrote off as a “political hit” that “came out of absolutely nowhere”). But he won his judicial post anyway, advocating for “impartiality on the bench.” This, he recalls, inherently included a push for bail reform.

While Nelson claims he’s saved “hundreds” of nonviolent alleged criminals from unjust pretrial jail time, others see his approach as excessive. Jeff Clayton, the executive director of the American Bail Coalition, points out that bail allows us to even get out in the first place. And paying a bondsman for your release is preferable to preventive detention (getting locked up anyway) or state-mandated risk assessment, a jump-bail analysis that Clayton says has been “debunked” in a 2006 study published in Crime & Delinquency and elsewhere. A right to a speedy trial, he says, is a much more effective, bipartisan solution. “The answer is not fixing the bail system,” Clayton says.

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Nelson says he’s saved hundreds of nonviolent alleged criminals from unjust pretrial jail time.

Since Nelson first spoke out a year ago, county officials have admitted to the jail’s vast overcrowding problem. Judges are discussing a special court docket to reset the bonds of 500 inmates, and 50 more have been transferred to other counties. It’s only the beginning of what Nelson sees as a wider sweep of Cleveland’s system. Fellow judges have lent him support, he says, but not yet publicly. 

Though Nelson doesn’t have any immediate plans to run for a higher office — “I’ll be aged out,” he laughs — he’s certain that his legacy will carry on. “That’s why we’re elected to these positions,” he adds. “To improve the quality of life, not for self-aggrandizement. So that when we leave, we can say, ‘Things are better now than they were when we got here.’”

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