Pennsylvania’s bail system keeps poor people in jail

Fishman and other reformers say pretrial incarceration has cascading effects on defendants, causing them to lose their jobs and housing, and breaking up their families. People jailed before trial are more likely to plead guilty and receive harsher sentences. And those who scrape together the money to post bail often do so by borrowing from relatives and friends, creating additional financial stress.

…The whole philosophy behind [reform] is that our traditional system in the United States of requiring cash bail is unfair to those who are indigent, who are living on the margins,” said Judge Stephen Baratta, who spearheaded Northampton County’s initiative during his recently ended tenure as the court’s president judge.

…“It seems anomalous that in our system of justice, the access to wealth is what often determines whether a defendant is freed or must stay in jail,” Circuit Judge Michael Chagares wrote. “Further, those unable to pay who remain in jail may not have the ‘luxury’ of awaiting a trial on the merits of their charges; they are often forced to accept a plea deal to leave the jail environment and be freed.”

…Even for those lucky enough to afford bail, posting it can be expensive. Lehigh County Chief Public Defender Kimberly Makoul said bail amounts that seem insignificant to many people are astronomical to her office’s clientele — even if just a few hundred dollars.

Given the court fees that accompany bail, some of the money is never returned, regardless of whether the accused makes all of his or her court dates — and even if there’s ultimately an acquittal.

For someone posting $10,000 in cash in Northampton County, court fees total $180. For someone posting a bond for that amount, the fees total $200. And that’s not counting the private fees that someone using a bail bond company must pay to the bondsman.

Lehigh County’s fees reach $248 for someone posting $10,000 cash, and $300 for someone relying on a bond.

There’s no evidence that monetary bail makes people more likely to show up in court, Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, said. Steps as simple as sending low-level offenders text messages to remind them of court dates can improve appearance rates. For higher-risk offenders, electronic monitoring, regular check-ins with court officials, and orders to stay away from victims are effective alternatives to bail, she said.

Northampton County has initiated bail reform to jail fewer defendants before trial. Before it was implemented, pretrial services director Nina Reynard tracked 51 low-risk defendants in February 2017. Her findings:

*They spent an average of 16.5 days in Northampton County Jail before posting bail or resolving their cases.

*It cost $97,000 to incarcerate them before trial

*All but four ultimately received sentences that didn’t call for incarceration, for instance probation or fines.

Pennsylvania’s bail system keeps poor people in jail – The Morning Call



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