LANCASTER, Pa. — Today, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of seven individuals incarcerated in the Lancaster County Prison (LCP) solely because they cannot afford to pay the cash bail assigned in their cases. The lawsuit claims that four magisterial district judges (MDJs) in Lancaster County regularly set cash bail without giving arrested persons an opportunity to be heard or considering their ability to pay, leading to the unconstitutional and unnecessary pretrial incarceration of hundreds of people every year.
Under state and federal law, individuals charged with crimes are entitled to be released pending trial unless the crime is punishable by death or life imprisonment or pretrial detention is necessary to protect the public. Judges can impose bail conditions designed to protect public safety or secure the individual’s appearance at future court proceedings, but those conditions must be individually tailored and reasonable.
“Both state and federal law demand a thorough review of a defendant’s personal and financial circumstances by magistrates before they set cash bail,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “But, in case after case, magistrates fail to consider these factors–or even provide the reasons behind their decision to assign unaffordable cash bail.”
The lawsuit alleges that the MDJs regularly assign cash bail at amounts people cannot afford to pay without considering individual factors. The plaintiffs include an 18-year-old high school student who has been incarcerated since January on $300,000 cash bail and a 46-year-old man who receives food stamps and housing assistance who has been incarcerated since March on $100,000 in cash bail.
“The people we represent have been in jail for weeks and even months solely because they are too poor to pay their bail,” said Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice strategic litigation and policy counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “They have lost their jobs, their homes, and the ability to provide for their children and other family members. Meanwhile, wealthier people charged with the same crimes are able to obtain their release and continue with their lives while awaiting trial.”
The lawsuit asks the court to order the LCP warden to stop incarcerating people on cash bail unless the MDJs give arrested persons an opportunity to be heard and make individual findings that support their bail decisions. It also asks the court to order Lancaster County to provide indigent individuals with lawyers at their preliminary arraignments and to declare that the practices of the defendant MDJs violate the plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection and due process.
You can find a copy of the filing at aclupa.org/lancaster-bail