Updated Nov. 14
Dante was trying to escape life under a bridge in Kensington when he ended up in handcuffs.
It was late in the summer of 2018, and officers charged the Philadelphia man with manufacturing, intent to distribute, and possession of narcotics. While the details of the case remain in dispute, Dante claims he had no drugs on him.
Court records show the 45-year-old, who requested his last name be withheld for fear of reprisal, had no prior felony charges for drug dealing, which allowed him to be released on non-cash bail. But the next day, Dante returned to his home in the camp and encountered the same officers. They booked him again on the same charges, documents show — again with no drug evidence, Dante maintains.
This time, a bail magistrate set Dante’s bail at $10,000, of which he’d have to post $1,000 (10%) or risk sitting in jail until his next court appearance.
“To me, it could’ve been $1 million, because there was no way I was going to come up with any kind of money like that,” Dante told Billy Penn.
Reality came crashing down: Like countless others before him in Philadelphia, he thought he could be incarcerated on State Road for months — years even — waiting for his court case to work through the system. Despite his professed innocence, he debated pleading no contest to the charges in hopes of getting out sooner. He could have been eligible for a release under the city’s three year-old Early Bail Review program, which offers free release and diversion services for non-violent offenders with lower bail amounts, but he said he was not offered that assistance.
Dante was in luck, though. Thanks to the Philadelphia Bail Fund, a two-year-old advocacy group that raises money to post cash bail for people who can’t afford it.
Within 48 hours of Dante’ incarceration, the Bail Fund had paid the $1,000 needed to get him out of lockup.
“It was life-changing,” Dante said. “Had I been in jail, sitting for a year, I would’ve took one of them [plea] deals in a heartbeat, because I would have wanted my freedom.”
A year later, one of Dante’ two back-to-back drug cases has been tossed out. He now has housing in West Philadelphia, and he’s on suboxone, a medical treatment for opioid addiction. He occasionally volunteers his time to do outreach with other drug users in Kensington.
His story of pretrial mercy is not unique.
Dante was one of 130 people who were freed thanks to the Bail Fund, according to a new report by the nonprofit on their efforts over the past two years.
While defenders say cash bail helps ensure court appearances, the Bail Fund’s experience echoes previous studies suggesting that’s not necessarily the case. Aided by free transportation and text message reminders, the report says, more than 9 out of 10 of people helped by the fund did show up for court, according to the new report. That’s on par with defendants’ overall appearance rate in city courts.
“Bail funds are not the solution to the problem, but I think we are able to disrupt the status quo and show that a more just system is possible,” Bail Fund cofounder Malik Neal told Billy Penn.
Breaking the bail cycle
Cash bail reform is underway in Philadelphia, but the city has not yet abolished it entirely, unlike nearby jurisdictions in New Jersey and Washington D.C.
Critics say the practice needlessly penalizes people in poverty, but public outrage is still common following reports of people who’ve been released and are then accused of additional crimes.
Certain criminal charges have dwindled under District Attorney Larry Krasner and Mayor Jim Kenney. After halting it for certain low-level offenses, the city saw a 22% reduction in the number of people spending a night in jail, and no statistical increase in previously-arrested people committing additional crimes, according to data from the prosecutor’s office.
But cash bail for felony charges remains standard in Philadelphia.
Since January 2018, Neal and a half dozen volunteers crowdfunded $115,000 to put towards early release for these individuals. The bail amounts they posted for the 130 cases ranged from $100 to $7,500 each.
The Bail Fund is one of two bail-posting groups of its type on the city — though they focus more on people who are newly incarcerated. Per the report, the group’s crowdfunded money prevented 8,500 days — or 23 years, combined — of pretrial detention for individuals. Using a daily cost-of-incarceration estimate provided by the Philadelphia Dept. of Prisons, they calculate it saved city taxpayers about $850,000.
They have also tried to post the release funds with some immediacy. Bail hearings occur quickly — sometimes lasting under two minutes — but the outcome can have long-lasting effects. (Here’s a handy explainer on how bail works in Philly.)
Paying for rides to the courthouse
While its sample size is very small — just over a hundred people in a criminal justice system that sees up tens of thousands of arrests every year — the Bail Fund recipients came from various zip codes and were charged with a broad array of offenses.
After 22 months of monitoring its clients, the Bail Fund reports that 75 of the 130 cases have been closed. Of those, seven in 10 cases were thrown away or withdrawn before trial.
Regardless of charges, 91% showed up for their scheduled court appearances — with some help from the 75 rideshares and 20 SEPTA Key cards provided by the Bail Fund.
For Dante, who was experiencing homelessness at the time, the assistance was a game changer. He said it also inspired him to keep fighting his drug charges throughout a yearlong court battle that spanned nearly a dozen hearings. One of the two cases has been dropped.
“I’m a black man, I’m 45 years old, and a felony on my jacket is not going to help me,” Dante said. “One down, one to go.”
The Bail Fund report includes testimonies from others who benefitted from the effort. They include parents, people with full-time jobs and people experiencing homelessness like Dante. Neal said he didn’t think the 1 in 10 who skipped court were necessarily absconding from the law; some may have had legitimate excuses.
“There are going to be a percentage of folks who don’t show up — and we were expecting that,” Neal said. “I don’t think we were expecting it to be as low.”