HARRISBURG - In response to a legal challenge to the cash bail practices of Philadelphia courts, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania announced yesterday that it will open an investigation into the “alleged systemic failures” of the Philadelphia bail system. The court agreed to hear the case under its “King’s Bench” powers, through which it supervises lower courts and which the court reserves for matters it considers of “great public importance.” The court assigned Judge John M. Cleland, a senior judge of the Court of Common Pleas of McKean County, as special master to oversee the inquiry.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the law firm Arnold & Porter filed a legal challenge on behalf of ten incarcerated people and two nonprofit organizations, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project, arguing that bail magistrates in Philadelphia’s First Judicial District have failed to consider alternatives to cash bail and have assigned cash bail to people who are too poor to afford it.

“We are grateful that the court understands that this situation needs more investigation,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “People who have not been convicted of a crime are sitting in Philadelphia jails only because they are too poor to pay the bail they’ve been assigned. The Philadelphia courts have effectively criminalized poverty.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s challenge states that the Philadelphia courts are violating the Supreme Court’s Rules of Criminal Procedure and is based on observations of more than 2,000 bail hearings. The court’s order gives the parties 90 days to submit evidence and briefs and then gives Judge Cleland 60 days after that to submit his recommendation to the court.

“There are people sitting in Philadelphia’s jails right now who have not been proven guilty of a crime,” said Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Bail hearings in Philadelphia typically last less than three minutes, which is wholly insufficient to inquire into someone’s ability to pay, and the person whose liberty is on the line is not even in the room, as they watch the proceedings by video. The bail system in Philadelphia must change.”