Conducted by video in a 24-hour courtroom in the basement of the Criminal Justice Center, the average preliminary arraignment hearing lasts less than 2½ minutes — during which defendants are typically warned not to speak. Bail commissioners almost never consider a defendant’s ability to pay, and routinely set money bail for people they’ve already identified as indigent. The result is, often, de facto pretrial detention.
That’s according to the Pennsylvania ACLU, which observed 650 bail hearings this year and summarized the findings in a searing Sept. 11 letter to the leadership of the Philadelphia courts, also known as the First Judicial District (FJD).
…Even as Philadelphia has invested in pretrial services to improve its court-appearance rate to 95 percent — part of a $6.1 million investment ignited by a MacArthur Foundation grant to reduce the jail population — ACLU observers reported that four out of the city’s six bail magistrates never referred defendants to such services, instead relying solely on money bail as a condition of release.
…People who are locked up pretrial are …more likely to commit future offenses, according to one analysis of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh bail systems. Researchers have found even a few days in jail can be destabilizing, causing people to lose jobs, housing, custody and benefits.
…A 2016 Inquirer analysis found that bail commissioners routinely set bail for teens facing adult charges far above guidelines, at an average of $248,000, without considering holding a full hearing or considering the youths’ ability to pay. In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals’ Third Circuit weighed in on the Lehigh County case of Joseph Curry, who was jailed for months on $20,000 bail for trying to scam a Walmart out of $130.27, and eventually took a plea deal so he could go home; the court described such bail practices as a “threat to equal justice under the law.”