In case you missed it…Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges last week and is now cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Many are touting this as a major turning point in the Russia investigation. That remains to be seen. As part of his plea deal, Manafort forfeited $45 million in criminal assets, prompting pundits on social media to joke that the Mueller investigation is actually making the American taxpayers money. That also remains to be seen. But even before Manafort decided to trade in his ostrich jacket for a canary suit, he was required to put up over $11 million dollars in bail, which he did in the form of real estate.
But what happens to those who don’t have Manafort’s resources (or connections to Russian oligarchs)? There has been a lot of discussion recently about the inequalities in our justice system, particularly when it comes to cash bail. In fact, the topic was the focus of the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners meeting last Wednesday. Representatives from Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER) Lehigh Valley, the NAACP, and the Lehigh Conferences of Churches addressed the board, advocating for alternatives to cash bail for nonviolent offenders, saying the current cash bail system is unfair to poor individuals and also to taxpayers.
“Cash bail is a system of pretrial release that forces a person who has been accused, but not yet found guilty, of a crime to pay a fee to be released from custody prior to additional proceedings or trial,” Julie Thomases who attended the meeting said. “It unjustly puts people into prison because they are poor. It increases cost to taxpayers. And it’s being challenged in many courts as unconstitutional.”
The current court system requires defendants in many criminal cases to post bail in order to be released while charges are pending. Many times judges set a high bail to ensure repeat offenders, people who are flight risks, or those accused of violent crimes are kept behind bars. Setting a high bail is often used as an incentive for defendants to appear at their court hearings.
The facts about mass incarceration in PA*
*From ACLU Pennsylvania’s Smart Justice campaign
Not only is cash bail unfair to the poor and minorities, it also puts a burden on the system by unnecessarily incarcerating individuals, sometimes for months, simply because they can’t make bail. This is an issue that plays well on both sides of the aisle, speaking to calls for social justice reform and also for fiscal responsibility. Lehigh County Commissioner Percy Dougherty supports eliminating cash bail, because he thinks it’s something fiscal conservatives can get behind. Percy said at Wednesday's meeting, “Even though I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and I’m supposed to be tough on crime and everything, but I also look at this as it’s costing us a lot of money in the county jail. If you’re a fiscal conservative, you have to believe that the bail system that we have right now is improper,” he said. “It discriminates against poor people.”
There’s one more aspect of cash bail that has advocates calling for reforms in the system. It’s increasingly being challenged in the courts. Speakers at the meeting cited the case of a Boyertown man, Joseph Curry, who was charged with shoplifting. Curry’s bail was set at $20,000. Because he feared he couldn’t make bail, Curry pleaded guilty even though he felt police hadn’t properly investigated the charge against him. He ended up spending 3 months in jail and missing the birth of his son. Curry’s appeal was denied by the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the case is being used to argue for bail reform. “It seems anomalous that in our system of justice, the access to wealth is what often determines whether a defendant is freed or must stay in jail,” Circuit Court Judge Michael Chagares wrote. “Further, those unable to pay who remain in jail may not have the ‘luxury’ of awaiting a trial on the merits of their charges; they are often forced to accept a plea deal to leave the jail environment and be freed.”
In response to Wednesday’s meeting, a committee is going to be formed to gather information on changes to the cash bail system, which will include the district attorney, the public defender, county executives, a member of the board of commissioners, and the current president judge.
California Governor Jerry Brown just signed a bill that goes into effect October 1st 2019, which will eliminate cash bail for suspects awaiting trial, making California the first state in the nation to do so. Places like D.C., Philadelphia, and Allegheny and Northampton Counties have already eliminated cash bail for non-violent offenders. Groups like ACLU Pennsylvania are pushing for bail reform with their Smart Justice Campaign.
What is happening here in Berks? Maybe that’s a question our county commissioners would like to answer.
posted by Amy Levengood