PHILADELPHIA — On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Arnold & Porter announced that they have filed a new lawsuit to bring bail practices in Philadelphia courts in line with the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. The lawsuit states that bail decisions in Philadelphia County rely too heavily on cash bail without considering alternatives that have been proven more effective than cash bail and don’t effectively punish people for being poor.
“We observed more than 2,000 bail hearings in recent months and found that bail magistrates were regularly violating rules intended to prevent the criminalization of poverty,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “These rules were created to encourage pretrial release on non-money conditions and limit the use of pretrial detention. But in Philadelphia bail hearings, it is usually money bail or nothing. Philadelphia must do better.”
The lawsuit was filed with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania as a complaint against Philadelphia Arraignment Court Magistrates Francis Bernard, Jane Rice, Sheila Bedford, Kevin Devlin, James O’Brien, and Robert Stack for violating the high court’s rules. It was filed on behalf of several people who are currently incarcerated and two community organizations that work for criminal justice reform.
“Our clients are not given even the rudiments of a fair hearing,” stated Sally Pei, of Arnold & Porter. “The court imposes bail they cannot afford in three minutes or less. Our clients are not given a chance to speak and often cannot hear the proceedings at all. The court routinely requires bail they cannot meet, without considering any alternatives to monetary bail. We have seen arraignment magistrates impose bail on people who are receiving food stamps.”
In September, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and other criminal justice reform advocates sent a letter to the then-president judges of the First Judicial District and its Municipal Court, demanding full due process hearings for those defendants that the commonwealth wishes to detain pretrial; that bail magistrates should employ a presumption against the use of cash bail; and that the court expand the use of alternatives to cash bail, such as pretrial notification programs, like texts and phone calls, both of which have been shown to be more effective in ensuring court appearances than monetary bail.
"We are honored to be a party to this lawsuit to force the bail magistrates to follow the rules that already exist,” said Candace McKinley of The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. “The Philadelphia Community Bail Fund has raised over $300,000 since 2017 to bail out 108 people too poor to buy their freedom. There are many more we haven't been able to help. If the rules were followed, nearly all of those we encounter would not have be imprisoned because they were too poor to pay."
“When I was 16, I was arrested and held on $250,000 bail. I threw away the bail paperwork because I knew my family couldn’t afford that,” said David Harrington, a youth organizer with the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project. “Adult jail is no place for a kid. It takes a serious toll on a young person to be locked up in a cell, missing birthdays, prom, graduation - all because their family doesn’t have enough money to get them out. We want to change that so more young people can be home and moving forward with their lives, not stuck in a jail cell when they haven't even seen a judge yet.”