Assigning cash bail to defendants has come under increased scrutiny over the years. In Allegheny County, the practice has Magisterial District Judges forcing defendants who were charged, but not convicted, of a crime to sometimes pay thousands of dollars to avoid time in jail. In the county, bails are doled out at preliminary arraignments, where it can be difficult to have a lawyer, family member, or advocate present. Pittsburgh City Paper wrote about how this can cause a myriad of issues, and how judges can help to end cash bail here: "Advocates fight to end cash bail"
But that’s just per district, and in just one county in Pennsylvania. State Rep. Summer Lee (D-Swissvale) wants to see the practice of cash bail ended all across the commonwealth.
On Jan. 15, Lee introduced a memorandum announcing she will be introducing a bill to end cash bail across Pennsylvania.
“The bail process in Pennsylvania too often centers on an individual’s ability to pay rather than the individual’s risk to public safety,” wrote Lee in the memorandum. “Because it includes no review of one’s ability to pay monetary bail, it frequently assigns cash bail to those who do not have the means to pay for release. This leads to lengthy periods of imprisonment, sometimes years, putting employment, housing, child custody and other means of a stable and productive life at risk.”
If people don’t have the funds to meet their cash bail, they are sent to jail until their hearing and/or trial, even if charges are ultimately dropped or they are found not guilty. Assigning bail to people who can’t afford it often means taxpayers foot the bill of defendants’ time in jail, and Lee’s memorandum says that “even six months of imprisonment can cost taxpayers $20,000.”
Lee’s memorandum also cites the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals, who in 2016 classified Pennsylvania’s system of bail as “a flaw in our system of justice” and “a threat to equal justice under the law.”
On top of that, incarceration rates in jails are high, even before imprisonment for being found guilty of crimes. County jails, like the Allegheny County Jail, hold inmates before trial, while prisons are where people who are sentenced are incarcerated. In Pennsylvania, most prisons are run by the state. Lee’s memorandum cites a 2019 Vera Institute study that shows that 64% of those imprisoned nationally since 2015 are pre-trial detainees.
California, the District of Columbia, and New Jersey have all ended the use of cash bail. This week, Illinois lawmakers passed a bill to end cash bail in their state. Philadelphia has limited the use of cash bail in recent years.
In a tweet, Lee announced that her memorandum has already attracted the support of many of her colleagues in the state House. National polling from progressive data firm Data for Progress indicates twice as many voters want to end cash bail compared to those who support it.
However, Lee’s push has an uphill climb in Harrisburg, as Republicans control both the state House and the state Senate. Because of this, Republicans rarely, if ever, let Democratic-written bills see votes in the chambers. And even though several Republicans verbally advocate for criminal justice reform, Republican leaders in 2019 altered five bi-partisan criminal justice bills, which caused advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union to drop its support.
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