In August 2020, mid-pandemic, our local jail population stands around 3,900 — its lowest level since 1985 — due in part to steps the District Attorney’s Office took to push against middling bails and simulate a no-cash-bail system. Now we’re pursuing our “Bail Policy 2.0,” a follow-up to the first policy in which the DAO stopped seeking bail for 25 low-level, nonviolent offenses, about two-thirds of all offenses charged by my office.
When the pandemic hit, the DAO began “Bail Policy 2.0,″ asking for one of two options: either a defendant’s release with no money required or for them to be held on $999,999 bail (which actually requires far less — $30,000 — to obtain release through a bail bondsman).
In light of COVID-19, Philly’s justice system partners, including police and courts, agreed that reducing the jail population was critical to flattening the curve in our region. Holding nondangerous defendants because they could not pay middling cash bail was irresponsible in light of the health crisis.
However, there were limitations to this policy. We did not feel that we could ask for dangerous inmates to be held without bail, as the law only allows this in very particular circumstances, such as in first-degree murder cases. Furthermore, a defendant who is held on a bail of at least $1 million must be held in segregation under our local jail’s rules, an outcome that places additional burdens on prison staff and is needlessly harsh.
So far, “Bail Policy 2.0″ has shown success in persuading bail commissioners to impose no-cash bail for less serious offenses so that poor people are not held unnecessarily. As of mid-August, when the DAO requests no cash bail, bail commissioners have issued no-cash bail 89% of the time.*
There is more to do, but that’s a big improvement in getting away from the examples of cash bail that have needlessly held poor people who are not a danger to our society.
“Bail Policy 2.0″ has been less successful so far in persuading bail commissioners to impose very high bails for truly dangerous defendants. For example, among defendants accused of gun violence and related offenses, bail commissioners almost never impose the nearly $1 million bail that we at the DAO often (though not always, depending on other factors) request. Only 13% of the time are bail commissioners imposing even half that amount or more.
Ordinarily, bails set in these cases range between $100,000 to $250,000, which only requires $3,333 to $8,333 to obtain release if bail bondsmen are involved. Due to these middling bails, too many defendants accused of gun violence and related offenses quickly pay bail and get out of custody, endangering others and themselves during the ongoing gun violence crisis.
Like all bail policies, our effort to simulate a no-cash-bail system is imperfect. It requires study and tweaking to eliminate even more middling bails and reduce the use of cash bail until we have the legislation to eliminate cash bail that we need. It requires thinking in new ways and doing new things. Ending cash bail demands it.
Larry Krasner is Philadelphia’s district attorney.
*Editor’s note: This post has been updated with corrected data from the District Attorney’s Office.