A new study from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania finds that the use of cash bail in Allegheny County dropped by about 9 percent between early 2018 and early 2019. But the civil liberties group says too many people await trial behind bars simply because they can't afford to post bond.
“Incarceration should not depend on a person’s wealth,” Nyssa Taylor, Criminal Justice Policy Counsel for the ACLU, said Thursday during a call with reporters. “Yet unfortunately, that’s precisely what happens in Allegheny County.”
Taylor added that people who are detained before trial can face severe consequences.
“Someone can lose their job, their house, sometimes even custody of their children, in just a few days,” she said.
The ACLU gathered data on initial bail hearings from more than 19,000 criminal docket sheets published by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
The records showed that judges imposed bail in about 28 percent of cases between June and February of this year. In early 2018 and 2019, black defendants were about 12 percent more likely than white defendants to be assigned bail, according to the ACLU’s report.
Racial disparities persisted even when white and black people were charged with similar offenses, the study found.
The ACLU also reported that indigent defendants represented by public defenders were about 12 percent more likely than those with private attorneys to be assigned bail – “the opposite of [how] it should be” given their inability to pay, Taylor said.
The study also found that magisterial district judges, who set bail in criminal cases, varied widely in their use of bail. Magistrate Thomas Caulfield in Braddock Hills, the report said, assigned bail in less than 2 percent of cases, compared to about 58% for Magistrate Michael Thatcher in South Park.
“And some of the magistrates who reduced their reliance on cash bail over the year unfortunately increased the amount of people they held without bail,” Taylor added.
In its report, the ACLU calls on the magistrates to end their use of bail.
The group also said District Attorney Stephen Zappala should urge police officers and prosecutors not to recommend bail at all.
In a statement, Zappala said his office “does not participate in the process when bail is set.”
But he noted that he lobbied the state Supreme Court around 2004 to reduce the use of bail by changing court procedures.
Following the DA’s efforts, the courts adopted new rules that prohibit magistrates from imposing bail on people accused of low-level offenses. Instead, the rules tell the judges to issue summons, or written notices, for initial court appearances.
In a 2018 letter, Zappala recommended further reforms to the justices. He wrote that courts should be required to use “unbiased and validated” software to assess the risk that individual defendants are likely to pose if released before trial.
And he added that when the assessment shows a defendant is highly likely to appear for court and not to threaten others’ safety, judges should be required to release the defendant, without or without conditions.
Zappala noted that the county’s bail agency uses a risk assessment tool to make recommendations to magistrates on whether to set bail in individual cases. If a magistrate does not follow the agency’s recommendation, the district attorney said, a trial court judge reviews the decision within 24 to 72 hours.
The ACLU and other advocates, however, have criticized existing risk assessment algorithms for reinforcing disparities by including variables such as gender, prior convictions and other pieces of criminal history.