Punishing poverty: How Philly’s cash bail system does more harm than good | Opinion

December 3, 2018, Malcolm Jenkins - The Philadelphia Inquirer

Our money bail system is a travesty. Every day in Philadelphia, people who are accused but not convicted of a crime are held in jail not because they are guilty, but because they are too poor to purchase their freedom. Judges here routinely put a price on a person's liberty, and it is often one they cannot afford. One in four people is assigned money bail of $50,000 or more.

I've witnessed this system firsthand, when my teammates and I watched bail hearings in the basement of the Criminal Justice Center. The stakes at these hearings could not be higher: the chance to fight for your freedom outside a jail or time in a cage; release to a job and family or loss of employment and support. And yet it is a farce to pretend that there is justice in that room. The people charged are not brought into court; they appear via television. More often than not, they cannot hear what is happening — neither the prosecutor arguing for bond nor the magistrate deciding their fate. The magistrate is often not a lawyer, let alone a judge, and has little accountability.

These hearings lasted two, maybe three minutes, not enough time for a defense lawyer to meaningfully advocate for release. Magistrates do not regularly consider whether someone could pay bail when setting an amount, and many could not. The day we watched, the magistrate set high bail for serious and non-serious cases alike.

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