NEWSWORKS: Civic Leaders host forum to end cash bail in Philadelphia

Last night Philadelphia's First Unitarian Church hosted a forum about how other cities and states are ending the use of cash bail in the criminal justice system.  

More than half the people in Philadelphia's prisons are waiting for their day in court because they cannot afford bail. Cliff Keenan, director of the Pre-Trial Services Agency in Washington DC, pointed to the efficiency of his city ending cash bail 20 years ago, which he says has sped up trial dates and reduced recidivism.

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., pointed out that the cash bail system has a long history in Philadelphia — it was designed by William Penn himself— but Jones said it is past time for meaningful reform. "DC has the Cadillac version [for ending cash bail] but I'll settle for a Ford or even a hoop-dee version," said Curtis.

Michael Berry from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office reported some progress.  Since July, the city has reduced its prison population by 16 percent to about 6,600 people. He attributed new reforms that divert drug offenders out of courts and speed up trial dates, but added that "I don't want to say 'We know what needs to be done, we're handling it,' because we know there is more that needs to be done." 

Reuben Jones, a leader in the Decarcerate Pa. movement, is pushing for a comprehensive ban on cash bail, like the one that took effect in New Jersey this year. 

Rueben Jones, an activist who spent 15 years in prison, speaks at a forum on ending the cash bail system Thursday at the First Unitarian Church. (Brad Larrison for NewsWorks)

“I want to share with you my own statistic. About 44 percent  of that 6,600 people are in jail for a bail of $5,000 or less. That means 3,000 people could get our of jail for $500 or less," Jones said.

Chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia Keir Bradford-Grey said city jails are clogged with people who pose little safety risk but can't afford bail.

“We allow people to sit in jail while they become more desperate only to be released in a more desperate state and expect them to be better- and that’s just not practical," Bradford-Grey said.

A Recent study showed that people who are jailed before their trial are more likely to commit another crime. 

Last year, the city was awarded $3.6 million from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the prison population by one third over two years. 

More than two million is dedicated to ending the cash bail system. As part of the reform movement, Bradford-Grey said her organization has focused on connecting offenders to social services as a way to try to prevent recidivism. Audience members listen during a forum on ending the cash bail system in Philadelphia at the First Unitarian Church. (Brad Larrison for NewsWorks)

Keenan, from the DC group, said that though his program is federally funded, political will is what makes reforms happen. 

"Don't get stuck with the resources. What you need is a culture change starting with your judges, prosecutors, but also the community to say ' We will not allow this inequity.' Because it really is a tragic loss, particularly for communities of color," said Keenan.