Why won’t Philadelphia follow the rules when setting bail?

by Ian Pajer-Rogers

Press conference announcing the lawsuit against Philadelphia bail magistrates

“G.T.” was arrested in Philadelphia on March 4, 2019. Fifty two years old and suffering from chronic pain from a 2014 injury, G.T. is a recipient of food stamps and was living in a car with all of his possessions in the weeks before he was arrested, as he sought an affordable apartment.

At his bail hearing, despite stating that he was currently unemployed and homeless, the judge set G.T.’s bail at $250,000, meaning G.T. would have to come up with $25,010 to secure his release until his trial.

G.T. is worried that his car, full of his possessions and parked on a public street, will not be there when he finally is released. He’s at risk of missing scheduled doctor’s appointments to treat his chronic pain. He’s sure that the leads on apartments will have evaporated. Worst of all, G.T.’s mother is dying of cancer. Everyday that he spends languishing in jail before he’s ever had his day in court is less time that he might spend with his mother.

“K.B.” is a 27-year-old mother of two who was recently arrested in Philadelphia. Despite making clear that she is not currently working and has no other source of income, the judge set K.B.’s bail at $10,000.

The judge never asked K.B. whether she could afford the $1,010 necessary to secure her release. K.B. remains separated from her children, who are five and nine.

K.B. has no idea how long she will be separated from her children before she has her day in court.

At the time of this writing, G.T. and K.B., like so many others, are incarcerated in Philadelphia’s county jail. Even though they have not been convicted of a crime, they are still being held pretrial because they can’t afford to pay to get out. But working with groups like the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project, they are fighting back.

G.T. and K.B. are, along with eight other individuals being held pretrial in Philadelphia County Jail, co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed March 12 by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Arnold & Porter. The lawsuit comes after observing more than 2,000 bail arraignment proceedings and after sending a letter of concern to the First Judicial District last September.

The lawsuit makes a very simple demand: that bail judges in Philadelphia follow the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure.

But before describing how bail judges in Philadelphia are in violation of the rules, let’s remember what bail is. And what it isn’t.

As cited in the complaint, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has “reaffirm[ed] that the purpose of bail is to ensure” that a person charged with a crime shows up for court and that “Pennsylvania law favors the release, rather than the detention of an individual pending a determination of guilt or innocence.”

In other words, bail should never be the sole factor that keeps a person locked up pretrial and judges have a legal obligation to consider whether an individual can afford the bail they set or whether they are effectively locking up a person for being poor.

The 2,000+ bail hearings that were observed in Philadelphia’s First Judicial District over the past year were rife with rule violations.

In many cases, judges would assign cash bail in one breath and a pro bono public defender in the next. Eighty-six percent of the defendants who were observed being assigned cash bail had already been determined to be too poor to afford bail or a lawyer.

The lawsuit calls on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to intervene and ensure that judges in Philadelphia are acting within the parameters of the rules and within the bounds of decency.

While this lawsuit is focused on bail judges in Philadelphia, the overuse of cash bail and pretrial detention is rife across Pennsylvania. We hope that judges and district attorneys statewide will take notice of this lawsuit and take time to review their own practices to ensure fairness, liberty, and justice for all Pennsylvanians.

If not, we will see them in court.