Credit: Marisa Lepore / Philadelphia Bail Fund

A new tool from the nonprofit Philadelphia Bail Fund aims to highlight the patterns that exist in Philly’s cash bail system, furthering public knowledge of how bail works — and how it disproportionately affects underserved communities.

Five city zip codes in North and West Philadelphia accounted for nearly a third of all bail paid last year, according to the tool, which is uses info collected from court records for every person charged in Philly. The majority of residents in those zip codes are people of color, per the tool, and a third or more live below the federal poverty line.

The idea is for people to be able to explore this data first-hand in an online, interactive portal set to launch early next year.

“The goal of the portal is that people have access to the information, but also that people see that this is a reflection of their situations,” Salih Israil, the Philadelphia Bail Fund’s new executive director, told Billy Penn.

Criminal justice advocates have been working for decades to reform the U.S. pretrial system, and recently they’ve been getting traction. Cash bail was recently abolished in New Jersey and Washington D.C., and California banned it for people who can’t afford it. In Philadelphia, bail reform has been loudly championed by District Attorney Larry Krasner.

PBF is also published a report that identifies the neighborhoods most affected by cash bail and gauges how much residents know or understand about the process. The report and forthcoming data tool are two aspects of the top priority for Israil.

Said the Atlantic City native, who joined the Philly org five months ago: “I think that the biggest thing we need is public education.

The five Philly zip codes that paid the most bail money

Ransom and Freedom,” the first report published by the bail fund under Israil’s tenure, used data collected with the oversight of Adam Linder, a PBF team member and Code for Philly data scientist.

“I led a rotating team of around a dozen brilliant programmers and data analysts who volunteered their time over the course of several months to spec out and build the script,” Linder said.

It found that five zip codes paid the most bail money — 19134 (Northeast Philly), 19140 (North Philly), 19120 (North Philly), 19124 (Northeast Philly), and 19143 (Southwest Philly).

The Philadelphia Bail Fund’s ’Ransom and Freedom’ report scraped publicly available court data to assess where in the city cash bail was assessed most Credit: Philadelphia Bail Fund

“These zip codes had a collective $460 million of cash bail set on them,” the report reads, which resulted in more than $6 million paid out of a total of $21 million paid across the city.

The info comes from a program Linder created, which downloaded dockets and court summaries for every person charged with a crime in 2020 and 2021, then extracted the following publicly available info from each:

  • docket number
  • arresting officer
  • date of preliminary arraignment
  • date of birth
  • zip code
  • magistrate
  • date bail set
  • type of bail
  • amount of bail set
  • amount paid
  • date bail was paid

For the report, the fund surveyed passersby in the five zip codes about their knowledge and view of the cash bail system.

In these neighborhoods, 63% of respondents said the bail system doesn’t keep them safe and 65% said it was an unfair system. Seventeen percent of people did believe cash bail upholds public safety, with 16% calling it fair, according to the report.

Rather than a scientific survey, Israil noted that the purpose behind the project was to get a snapshot of what those most affected believed about cash bail, while “equipping people with the type of access to information and understanding of what that is — that allows them to have a real position about it, and not one that is provoked and ignited by buzzwords or fear mongering.”

The report noted that 70% of respondents had “some” or “little” knowledge of the actual workings of the bail system, presenting the bail fund’s case on a platter.

“I think that goes back to that informed consent, right?” said Israil. “Making sure the public is properly educated around the issues of bail and pre-trial detention so that as change starts to happen, they can have a response to that in relation to the fact of what it actually does and what it doesn’t do.”

A director with decades of lived experience

Although the Philadelphia Bail Fund started work on the study before Israil’s arrival, the project’s data-driven approach aligns with his expertise.

Israil, born and raised in Atlantic City, was incarcerated in Rikers Island for two years in the mid-90s and served a 20-year sentence in New York state prison. In that time, he earned an undergraduate literature degree and a masters in Urban Ministry from the New York Theological Seminary, then pivoted to statistical and data analysis as part of Bard College’s Prison Initiative.

“I literally became an advocate while in prison,” said Israil. “I started writing workshops, I became a Department of Labor certified HIV/AIDS counselor, I got involved with a lot of things trying to create a better quality of life for the men that were in prison with me.”

One thing he wasn’t interested in was working for a nonprofit, initially swearing off the idea.

But in 2016, a perfectly timed opportunity with the Envision Freedom Fund, formerly known as the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, changed his mind.

“Literally about a week out of prison, a friend of mine on their board was like, ‘they need some support,’ and I started there as a data analyst,” he said.

Israil then worked with the Bard Prison Initiative before returning to Envision, where he was working when he received a call from Malik Neal, the Philly Bail Fund’s previous director, who was transitioning out of the organization. Israil formally joined the team this March.

Pushing for reform against ‘cash bail culture’ and political posturing

The new report clarifies the PBF’s view of what the bail system “actually does” when it decries the hundreds that “remain caged in Philadelphia’s overcrowded, understaffed, and rodent-infested jails simply because their families do not have the means necessary to purchase their freedom.”

The PBF calls this a manifestation of “the endless scarcity politics that define capitalism,” and the way this system is commonly understood “cash bail culture.”

To Israil, that culture is reflected in the way that the assignment of cash bail “has a very arbitrary nature that literally lines up against people who don’t have and people of color.”

A prominent misconception, the report argues, is that cash bail keeps us safe, although the purpose for every form of bail is to ensure that defendants return to court. Meanwhile, the current system is associated with increased recidivism.

In the midst of a crisis of gun violence, the Philadelphia Bail Fund understands its job as dispelling the idea that a more punitive approach is the answer — and debunking what it sees as political posturing by District Attorney Larry Krasner. The group’s reports have thrown cold water on the notion that Krasner made radical shifts in how bail works for years now, mostly because the court-run process is out of his jurisdiction.

With Krasner facing the possibility of impeachment, an imminent mayoral race that will foreground debates over how to achieve public safety, and conditions in Philly’s jails consistently described as horrific, the PBF wants to equip residents with their view of bail, but also with the hard facts of how the system operates today.

“What data does is it seems to create a model that can be looked at, analyzed, turned upside down, and delved into, of what a situation really is,” said Israil. “I’m highly hopeful for the community education route. That has to be phase one, right?”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...