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Pennsylvania Earns ‘D’ For How It Treats Defendants Before Trial

Kathy Willens
Bail has drawn increased scrutiny as lawmakers and advocates strive to improve pretrial justice in the U.S.

Pennsylvania earned a "D" in a study that grades states based on the way they handle criminal cases from the time defendants are arrested to the time they’re found guilty or innocent. "D" was the average grade nationally.


Cherise Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, which conducted the study, said these results indicate that states detain too many people who have yet to be convicted and rely too heavily on money bail in determining whether to detain arrestees.


“Money bail ends up detaining people who are simply too poor to post it,” Burdeen said. “The reverse of that is if you get a person who’s arrested for a very serious violent charge and is able to use the bond system to purchase his or her way out, unsupervised by the court, that puts the public at risk.”


In recent years, a growing number of lawmakers and advocates have called for the elimination of money bail in determining whether people can be released from jail before trial. While judges throughout the country commonly use bail, reformers argue that they should instead detain arrestees based on the risk that they won’t appear for court or will threaten public safety if released.

Burdeen noted that Allegheny County adopted an evidence-based system years ago to help judges assess the risk that individual defendants are likely to pose if released before trial. It’s part of an effort the county has undertaken, Burdeen said, to help judges shift from a wealth-based model of setting bail to a risk-based model grounded in data.


A year ago, however, the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh reported that Allegheny County judges followed recommendations from the county’s risk assessment program in only six in 10 cases in 2014.


Other research has found that people who remain in jail because they can’t afford bail face an increased risk of losing their jobs, housing, and child custody. They’re also more likely to plead guilty and to receive longer sentences.


National data show that nearly two-thirds of the people in U.S. jails are unconvicted individuals, up from about half of the jail population in 1990, according to the new Pretrial Justice Institute study.


Ninety-five percent of the growth in jail populations from the late 1990s until today, the study adds, is due to a rise in the unconvicted population.


The Pretrial Justice Institute assigned grades for states’ pretrial practices and policies based on three factors: the rate at which the states detain unconvicted defendants, the percentage of the population living in a jurisdiction that has implemented a risk-based system for pretrial decisionmaking and the percentage of the population living in a jurisdiction that has functionally eliminated money bail.


New Jersey was the only state to receive an "A" grade. It effectively eliminated bail earlier this year.


There were nine Bs, ten "Cs," 12 "Ds" and 17 "Fs." Delaware received an "incomplete" because there was no data for one of the three indicators used to calculate grades.