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Penn studies: Defendants who can't make bail are likelier to be jailed now and in the future

Criminal defendants who cannot make cash bail are far more likely to be convicted than similarly situated suspects who receive pretrial release, say two new University of Pennsylvania studies.

Criminal defendants who cannot make cash bail are far more likely to be convicted than similarly situated suspects who receive pretrial release, say two new University of Pennsylvania studies.

The work suggests that the inability to pay bail traps many of the accused in a cycle of criminal conduct.

The studies, covering hundreds of thousands of criminal cases in Philadelphia and the Houston area, found that defendants who were unable to make bail were far more likely to plead guilty than those who had been released, after adjusting for differences in judges, defendants' circumstances and other factors. The studies were conducted by researchers at Penn's Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, which focuses on reducing errors in the justice system.

"Existing data suggest that a substantial percentage of misdemeanor defendants are detained pretrial for inability to post bail," the study of misdemeanor cases in the Houston area said. "For this group, the worst punishment may come before conviction."

The studies' release comes as the city embarks on a $6.1 million project with the MacArthur Foundation to reduce incarceration rates by one third through aggressive pretrial intervention, reduced use of cash bail and other tactics. Overcrowded city jails hold about 7,500 inmates, and are projected to cost the city $258 million over the next year.

Nationwide, 11 million people are held in U.S. jails annually.

The Penn studies assert that reducing the use of cash bail for minor offenders not only would result in a fairer process but also would reduce operating costs.

Offenders who fail to make cash bail may plead guilty simply as a tactic to be released. Many at that stage are sentenced just to time served, so the path out of jail is through a guilty plea.

But they also face a double threat: In addition to facing higher conviction rates, they are also more likely to be charged in future crimes.

Paul Heaton, academic director for the Quattrone Center, said that is because even short jail stays have a disruptive effect on the lives of criminal defendants. The loss of a job and a place to live are common outcomes, increasing the odds for future criminal conduct.

"Defendants in these cases have an incentive to plead quickly to secure release, which may contribute to widespread errors in case adjudication and have ripple effects as individuals come into further contact with the criminal justice system down the line," Heaton said.

Heaton is the primary author of the Houston-area study, which found that detained defendants charged with misdemeanor crimes were 25 percent more likely to plead guilty and 43 percent more likely to serve jail time, and receive sentences that are twice as long on average.

Many of these defendants receive no legal representation until much later in their cases, a potential breach of their Sixth Amendment right to counsel, the study asserts.

Although some jurisdictions ensure that criminal defendants have legal representation at bail hearings, many do not. Heaton's study said high detention rates in many areas are because some jail administrators are reimbursed based on bed occupancy. Many judges also fear that they will be blamed when a released defendant goes on to commit a crime.

The Philadelphia study, by Quattrone Center fellow Megan Stevenson, reviewed 331,615 felony and misdemeanor cases from September 2006 through February 2013, finding that defendants who were unable to obtain pretrial release were 13 percent more likely to be convicted, all other things being equal.

The study found that only 51 percent of criminal defendants who were assigned a bail amount of $500 or less - defendants are required to post 10 percent of that - were able to come up with the money within three days. Overall, 25 percent of misdemeanor defendants were unable to make cash bail.

"Often the poor can't afford even relatively low amounts of money bail, and the effects of even a few days in jail can be severe, such as the loss of a job or housing," Stevenson said.