More than 800 people who have been arrested but not convicted are being held in jail in Philadelphia only because they don’t have enough money to post bail. Four years ago, that number was over 2,000.
Criticism of cash bail has been one of the cornerstones of criminal justice reform. Last year, City Council passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the District Attorney’s Office, the courts, and the state legislature to abolish cash bail. District Attorney Larry Krasner stopped seeking bail for 25 low-level offenses. In March, , the American Civil Liberties Union sued Pennsylvania’s First Judicial District for its bail practices, which include not taking into account a defendant’s ability to pay.
And while the progress is impressive, research suggests that there are still deep inequities in Philadelphia’s cash bail system.
Last week, Inquirer staff writer Samantha Melamed interviewed Megan Stevenson from George Mason University about her review of cash bail in Philadelphia. Stevenson is an economist and a professor of law who has found a large racial disparity in who stays in jail while awaiting trial — white defendants post bail at a rate 25 percent greater than black defendants. Stevenson explains that because of the close relationship of wealth and race in America, many black defendants are just unable to come up with bail of $500 or even $100.
The result is that white defendants are able to buy their freedom while awaiting trial when black defendants are not. According to a previous Stevenson study, pretrial detention leads to longer sentences, increased probability of pleading guilty, and higher court fees imposed on defendants.
In other words, not being able to post bail doesn’t only take away a person’s freedom in the present, it deprives them of their freedom — personal and financial — in the future.
The goal of cash bail is to create an incentive for people to appear in court and to not harm anyone while they await trial. Another Stevenson study has shown that removing the incentive doesn’t matter much. She evaluated the impact of Krasner’s bail policy and found that it reduced by 22 percent the number of people who were held in jail for at least one night without reducing court appearance rate. In fact, in 2018 the First Judicial District saw the highest court appearance rates in a decade. Fewer innocent defendants held, no reduction in court appearances, and fewer opportunities for class and racial disparities — that’s the outcome of not seeking bail.
A defendant who is a flight risk or a risk to the community shouldn’t be free on bail. If someone is neither, how much money they have in the bank should be completely irrelevant.
The path to abolish cash bail goes through the First Judicial District — a body that is governed by judges who are elected representatives just like the Mayor and City Council. Philadelphia voters should make a statement in the upcoming judicial primary by vetting candidates on their positions, and voting. That might send a message that if Philadelphia still has cash bail in two years, judges should be worried about their retention elections.