Unbreaking the bail system

Given today's article about the private bail industry angling to move their business into Philadelphia, I am bumping back up my post from January of this year. Please, please listen to the NPR series linked at the bottom of the post, if you haven't already. And thanks to the decision-makers - the courts, DA, and Public Defenders - who are pushing back on this.

While I have concerns with the recent Inquirer series on the city's criminal court system, there are certainly problems with that system, and the series certainly drew attention.

Since it went to press, state Supreme Court justice Ron Castille finally took the step many of us were waiting for: he is stripping all significant responsibilities from the Clerk of Quarter Sessions and handing them over to the courts. The elected position and accompanying salaries will still exist for now, but that office will functionally no longer be administering the bail system.

Also, Arlen Specter convened Senate subcommittee hearings to examine many of the issues raised by the Inquirer. Seth Williams, our new DA, testified at those hearings. Seth also focused on problems with the bail system. He emphasized need for not harsh punishment, but sure punishment. This is key. The issue is not the dramatic $1 billion plus figure the newspapers have trumpeted, since much of that money is surely uncollectible. It's the need for more resources to be devoted to bail enforcement. This will take detectives, though Specter also noted that the city could start by simply registering fugitives in an existing national database.

(However, as it risks continuing the blood from a stone mistake, I hope Seth's comment about the possibility of going after bail scofflaws' family members stays on the drawing board.)

Joe Sestak, running against Specter in the upcoming primary, also put forward a plan to help cities deal with the long-term fugitive problem:

Also in response to the newspaper's work, U.S. Rep Joe Sestak (D., Pa.), running against Specter in the Democratic primary, called for a nationwide study on how to reform bail. He said that under his proposal, Philadelphia could be selected as a place to test the best new approaches.

Specter said he would urge his colleagues in the Senate to revive a proposal to channel federal money to cities to help stem the tide of fugitives.

The hearings also raised the private versus public bail question, a subtext to a lot of the newspaper coverage. Many are agitating to open the doors to private bail providers again, though Philadelphia abandoned that practice in the face of abusive practices. Specter has invited research into the private bail option, though initially seemed opposed to it.

However, as we've seen, any attempts to increase the stringency of the bail system based on increasing dollar amounts of bail runs the risk of just swelling the city prison population with poor, pre-trial detainees who simply have no way to get even a small amount of money together. Any reform of the bail system should focus not on raw dollar amounts, but on means tests and refining how we evaluate risk of flight, coupled with stricter oversight and enforcement. This must include supervised alternatives to incarceration for those who can't translate their commitment to show up for court into a monetary payment.

Yesterday NPR's 'All Things Considered' opened a chilling three-part series on the half million Americans sitting in jail--not because they've been convicted of any crime--but because they can't afford bail, sometimes as little as $50 (the subject of the story, when told, 'that's not a lot of money,' says, 'it is to me. To me it's like a million dollars.'). Everyone concerned with plans for Philadelphia's system should listen.

The NPR report was devasting

It just kept getting worse and worse as the story went on. Every single aspect of the report showed that the private bail bondsmen systems only cost the public more money with less beneficial return than the alternative of pre-trial release programs.

And on top of everything else, the bail bondsmen collect 10% of the bail from the inmates yet only pay the courts 5% of the bail if the accused fails to show up for trial, and the bail bondsmen don't assume responsibility for tracking down the no-show?

Are you kidding?

That report pretty much capped off a completely depressing week, politically.

Yeah I have to listen to the middle segment

but I caught the end from Broward County, where they voted to curtail the successful release program under pressure from the private bond industry. So horribly depressing, especially to hear during a week full of other ominous news for American and local democracy. Here are the other parts--

Part 2: Inmates Who Can't Make Bail Face Stark Options

Part 3: Bondsman Lobby Targets Pretrial Release Programs


Private or public bail system? The good news is that it set off a study of the facts. The bad news is that the findings made the problem even worse than any one thought. I will watch to see where this goes. casino online

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