A new program will train Philly residents to help track cash bail

The Philadelphia Bail Watch will monitor the 24/7 operation that puts people behind bars.

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Flickr Creative Commons / Allen Allen
Neilay Shah

Clarification appended

Advocates fighting to end cash bail in Philadelphia will add a new tool to their arsenal this weekend.

On Saturday, two local criminal justice nonprofits, the Philadelphia Bail Fund and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, are launching a program to organize and train members of the public to monitor municipal bail hearings.

Called Philadelphia Bail Watch, the project will hold courts and the District Attorney’s Office accountable for promised reforms, organizers from PBF and PMC hope — and also increase public awareness about the harsh realities of Philly’s cash bail system.

“Every day, in hearings that often last for less than 90 seconds, bail commissioners decide whether or not a person remains free while awaiting trial,” said Malik Neal, PBF vice president.

“For people who cannot afford their cash bail — even a few hundred dollars — they must choose to either plead guilty or sit in jail for weeks, months, or years without ever being convicted of a crime. This is a false choice.”

Philadelphia has been making steady progress toward eliminating cash bail, but without a statewide mandate to end it (like happened in NJ), the system has been slow to change.

Currently, Philly Municipal Court conducts about 40,000 to 60,000 arraignments per year, meaning it books around 136 defendants per day. As a result, preliminary arraignment court (what Philly calls bail court) runs as a 24/7 machine, with each arraignment rarely exceeding two minutes. Because defendants are housed in eight different detention centers across the city, bail hearings are not conducted in person, but via video link, and defendants do not receive an opportunity to speak with an attorney before their hearing.

The overwhelming size and speed of this method makes it difficult to track whether and to what extent high-level policy changes are actually being implemented.

Philadelphia Bail Watch will attempt to get a clearer, on the ground picture of how bail is being assigned. The project will document watchers’ impressions of the process and collect data on the circumstances under which prosecutors request and magistrates assign bail.

Organizers intend to publish a detailed report of their findings in the summer of 2018.

In 2015, Jim Kenney’s campaign stated he would consider ending it. Soon after Kenney’s election, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Philadelphia $3.5 million to implement a slew of criminal justice reforms, including those intended to reduce the number of defendants being held in jail simply because they were too poor to post cash bail. One of these reforms, “Early Bail Review,” was rolled out in July of 2016.

On Mother’s Day 2017, a coalition of community advocacy groups brought cash bail back into the headlines when they raised over $20,000 to bail poor mothers out of jail as part of National Mama’s Bail Out Day. Larry Krasner kept the movement alive during his bid for the District Attorney’s Office, campaigning hard on a promise to reform cash bail.

Krasner was elected in November of 2017 and took office in January. In February, City Council passed a resolution calling for the end of cash bail in Philadelphia. A few weeks later, Krasner announced that the DA’s Office would no longer seek bail for many misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. With the Mayor, City Council, District Attorney and a wide section of public opinion all in favor of bail reform, Philadelphia seems more poised than ever to ditch cash bail.

“Krasner’s new policy marks an important step towards ensuring our city’s pre-trial system is more just and fair,” said Cal Barnett-Mayotte, Philadelphia Bail Watch coordinator and PBF volunteer. “But as concerned citizens, it is our job to make sure these policies are achieving their intended goal as well as advocate for broader reform.”

Philadelphia Bail Watch is inviting all those who are interested to attend the first bail watch on Saturday, April 21, 2018. The group will meet in the lobby of the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, 1301 Filbert St., at 8 a.m.

For those interested in participating in or leading their own bail watch groups, the Philadelphia Bail Watch will be hosting bi-monthly trainings, with the first held April 28, 2018.

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