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Politics & Government

House bill passes that could threaten to close Pennsylvania's community bail funds

Black Young and Educated Bakery Square George Floyd Pittsburgh Protests police brutality.JPG
Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA
A crowd holds up their hands during a demonstration against police brutality held by the group Black, Young and Educated on Saturday, June 6, 2020.

A bill that passed the Pennsylvania House this week could change how community bail funds operate and may force some of them to close. It would require anyone that pays bail for more than three individuals over the course of 30 days to be a licensed professional bail bondsman.

Most bail funds operate as nonprofits that collect donations from community members to free a person from jail before trial. Pennsylvania has eight bail funds across the state.

A surge in donations to these funds happened during police brutality protests across the nation in 2020. For months, bail funds were heavily focused on posting bail for protesters caught up in mass arrests that summer.

Bail funds serve as an alternative to bail bond companies, which charge an incarcerated person non-refundable fees in exchange for guaranteeing bail to the court, allowing the incarcerated person to be free while awaiting trial.

When an individual returns for their court proceedings, the bail bond company keeps that fee for profit.

Bail funds put up the costs without charging a fee and often provide other services, like a ride to court, to ensure the person meets their bail obligations. When an individual appears in court, the fund receives that money back to use for the next person.

Pennsylvania bail funds are speaking out against the bill, saying it would not only affect their work but the work of other community groups and churches working to help incarcerated individuals achieve pretrial release.

“It attacks the concept of communities being able to band together,” said Alex Domingos, board member of the Dauphin County Bail Fund. “Paying bail is already such an onerous process with a lot of regulations. We fear that any additional regulations or barriers … would result in more people being incarcerated pretrial.”

'Harder to bail people out'

House Bill 2046 holds bail funds to the same requirements as any professional bondsmen in the state.

“This would make it harder to bail people out,” said Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Bail fund organizers point out that the bill would also hold churches and other community groups to the same professional standards.

“It’s going to preclude church groups or families who are pooling together resources to put together that money order or cashier’s check for an egregiously high bail,” said Milica Bogetic, an organizer with the Bukit Bail Fund of Pittsburgh. “It’s really not about bail funds only. It’s more about [how the bill] is restricting the freedom to do this.”

Bail funds or groups who regularly bail out community members would have to meet the following requirements.

  • Obtain a license from the state Insurance Department, which requires a $125 application fee and approval from the local district attorney
  • Pass a criminal background check
  • Pass a credit background check
  • Maintain an office in the county in which a bail fund operates

That last requirement would complicate the way bail funds collaborate with each other and serve people in neighboring counties. Four of Pennsylvania’s eight bail funds are in the Philadelphia area. The other four are in Allegheny, Dauphin, Lancaster and Montgomery counties.
The Bukit Bail Fund of Pittsburgh frequently serves people incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail, Bogetic said, but they also work with people in neighboring counties.

“We very regularly get requests from Butler, from Mercer [and from] Indiana [counties],” she said.

Requiring the group's members to pass a criminal background check would keep formerly incarcerated people from organizing bail funds. Many use their experience with the legal system once they’re free, according to Taylor.

That’s “precisely why they become activists and choose to help,” she said. “Requiring them to have a clean criminal record…would prevent them from helping people.”

A party-line vote

The bill flew through the House, passing mostly along party lines two weeks after it was introduced by state Rep. Kate Klunk (R-York). Klunk declined WESA’s multiple requests for an interview about the legislation.

During a House Judiciary Committee meeting last week, state Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny) asked Klunk for examples of bail funds freeing people who commit crimes while on bail or those who refused to show up for their court date.

“This could happen. I don’t have a particular instance right off the top of my head to give you,” Klunk answered. “You could certainly see somebody skipping out. You could see another crime being committed.”

Klunk admitted that bail funds could operate altruistically, but she argued that without a license they can’t be held accountable for releasing someone who commits another crime while on bail.

“Because that person doesn’t have that professional experience in this, it could potentially create problems, jeopardize public safety and security in our communities,” she said.

During the hearing, Klunk and other supporters of the bill did not cite data showing that bail funds are responsible for freeing repeat offenders.

“There were no known instances where community bail funds were having a problem or [something] that would’ve prompted this sudden need to professionalize community bail funds,” Kinkead said. “This is a solution looking for a problem.”

During the same committee hearing, state Rep. Paul Schemel (R-Franklin), suggested the bill also protects bail funds from being used by drug cartels.

“This is a good solution to a problem,” he said.

Kinkead argued that cartel members are often held on bonds too high for community bail funds to achieve.

Bail fund advocates question whether bail bond industry itself is behind the bill.

Citing a report from The Pennsylvania Capital-Star, Taylor pointed to donations made to Republican campaigns by lobbyists with ties to bail bond companies.

"I think what [we’re] seeing is large corporations and greed … using this as a way to put [bail funds] out of business,” said Taylor. “The bail bond industry is losing money to bail funds.”

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the bill would disproportionately harm people of color.

“Pretrial detention can ruin lives, and it is often only the work of community bail funds that prevents people who cannot afford bail from having their lives ruined before they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, particularly Black and brown people," said Shuford.

What’s next?

The bill now moves to the state Senate for consideration.

A spokesperson for the Wolf administration said the governor opposes the legislation “in its current form.”

“[The bill] would create barriers for community organizations that provide support to Pennsylvanians who can’t afford cash bail, which itself is regressive and disproportionately impacts minority populations,” the spokesperson said.