Philadelphia bail watch volunteers document daily injustices of cash bail | Opinion
Bail Watchers saw bail used commonly, cavalierly, and punitively despite reform efforts in Philadelphia.
Eric was one black face in a stream of black faces that appeared, in quick succession, on a television screen in the basement of Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center.
I knew little more than Eric's name and the charges against him — possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance — when I watched a bail commissioner tell him via videoconference whether he would spend the next months of his life at home or in a cage.
Eric's lawyer, a public defender, had hardly more information than I did with which to craft an argument for release. She had never met Eric.
In a hearing that lasted less than two minutes, the commissioner gave no hint that he knew any more about Eric, as a person, than I did. He knew Eric's income well enough to deem Eric indigent and assign a public defender to his case. He knew Eric's name, though he didn't use it.
And he knew the crime that the Philadelphia Police Department says Eric committed.
With that, the commissioner assigned a dollar value to Eric's freedom. If Eric had the money, he would be free until the conclusion of his case — free to work, raise his family, and coordinate with his attorney to fight his case. If he didn't — and he didn't — he would sit behind bars at a county jail until he was acquitted, convicted, or had the charges dropped.
Eric is not a specific person, and this story is not unique. It is reproduced around the clock, every day of the year, in room B08 of the Criminal Justice Center. It happens almost exclusively with nobody watching but a commissioner, a representative from the Defender Association, a representative from the District Attorney's Office, a court clerk, and a police officer.
Philadelphia Bail Watch exists to change that reality. Since April, 76 Philadelphians have visited the basement of the Criminal Justice Center and watched more than 600 bail hearings through the court watchdog program, a joint project between the Philadelphia Bail Fund and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. They remind Philadelphia's criminal justice stakeholders that the public cares.
The responses from Bail Watchers are striking. As outlined in a report by Philadelphia Bail Watch, volunteers saw bail used commonly, cavalierly, and punitively despite reform efforts in Philadelphia. Their observations disturbed them.
Volunteers saw people detained on excessive bail: "High cash bails are being set with no concern for what people can afford." They saw videoconferencing technology prevent human connection: "[The CCTV] depersonalizes the process … I think it is incredibly unfair for the defendant." They saw racial disparities: "I saw a lot of black faces [on the CCTV], and I imagine this is in part due to the over-policing of black communities." And they saw bewildering injustices: "These are people's lives at stake, forced to sit through a video process where half of the time they cannot hear anything that's going on, being defended by a public defender they have never seen before or had a chance to even ever talk to."
The report also highlights the most important voices in this conversation: the people on the other side of the screen. People charged with crimes know firsthand the injustices of money bail. One notes a commissioner's explicit use of money bail to detain him, rather than to ensure his return to court: "I told her I was unemployed … The commissioner said, 'I'm going to make it $100,000. He's not working, so he can't pay it anyway.' That's word for word — I won't forget that."
Another comments on the inversion of the presumption of innocence: "You're tried like you're a criminal before you're found guilty or innocent." Yet another explains the difficult job his public defender had in a system that stifles confidential attorney-client interaction prior to or during hearings: "[The public defender] didn't really speak much. It's hard for them to do you justice when they don't know you or haven't spoken to you."
Another person describes being physically absent from his own hearing: "I don't think anything could be more impersonal than sitting there learning your fate from a TV screen. You can't plead your case, you can't state what actually happened, you can't do any of that.
"They tell you to sit down, shut up, speak when spoken to."
The Philadelphia Bail Fund advocates for the end of money bail in Philadelphia. Wealth-based detention, and pretrial detention except in the most extreme circumstances, is wrong. Our report, which represents a collection of Philadelphians' voices, insists on immediate and urgent reforms. Money bail is untenable, and it needs to be abolished. Until then, volunteers will keep watch in the basement of the Criminal Justice Center.
Cal Barnett-Mayotte is a coordinator of Philadelphia Bail Watch and volunteer with the Philadelphia Bail Fund. Volunteers can sign up to watch at phillybailfund.org/bailwatch.