PHILADELPHIA, PA — After observing more than 650 bail hearings in the Criminal Justice Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has sent a letter to judges who oversee those hearings to demand urgently needed reform. Philadelphia bail commissioners do not follow the law, resulting in poor Philadelphians being routinely incarcerated while they wait for trial because they cannot afford to pay cash bail, while wealthy Philadelphians are able to pay their way out of jail.

This letter echoes what community activists and organizers, such as Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project, #No215Jail Coalition, and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund have been saying for years: the First Judicial District must reform its unconstitutional bail practices.

“Assigning cash bail without considering a person’s ability to pay amounts to one criminal justice system for the rich and another for the poor, and we see it time and again in Philadelphia,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of ACLU of Pennsylvania, “This is unjust, unacceptable, and it must change.”

People detained even for just a few days may lose employment, access to medical care, housing, and even their children. Despite these enormous consequences and the fact that everyone who appears before these bail commissioners is to be presumed innocent,  bail commissioners in Philadelphia conduct cursory hearings lasting, on average, less than three minutes. Many hearings last less than one minute. That is not enough time, says the ACLU, to consider alternatives to cash bail for poor people.

"When I was 16, I was locked up in an adult jail even though I hadn't been convicted of anything. The bail was way too high for my family to even think about paying it," recalls David Harrington, a leader of the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project and the #No215Jail Coalition. "After eight months, my case was sent down to juvenile court and I was released. Spending all that time in an adult jail put a lot of stress on me and my family."

“This research from the ACLU confirms what we already know: Philadelphia courts are continuing to criminalize our people for being poor,” said Devren Washington of the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. “The First Judicial District needs to be held accountable for the gross violations of basic human rights that bail magistrates are committing by regularly setting unaffordable bails that keep legally innocent people in cages for days, months and even years before they have even seen a judge.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is demanding full due process hearings for those defendants that the commonwealth wishes to detain pretrial; that bail commissioners 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.

A copy of the letter can be found here.