A need for increased accountability

I observed 15 hearings. The magistrate assigned four of these defendants cash bail, two had detainers, and the rest received a release on recognizance (ROR). Those released on recognizance did not have to pay any monetary sum. The ROR hearings moved particularly quickly, and the court actors did not discuss much other than the defendants’ past criminal history. For each instance in which the DA representative requested cash bail, the public defender gave the same impersonal statement on behalf of the defendant. In each case, the magistrate set bail as per the DA’s request.

The most striking observation I noted is that of the 15 hearings, the magistrate did not ever seem to consider factors other than criminal history and charges. Factors such as the defendant’s ties to the community, family relations, or mental health should always come up; and clearly that is not the case. This is an area where I see a seriously need for improvement. While the magistrate did consider the defendants’ financial situation when determining bail, factors outside income were excluded from consideration.

The court has the responsibility to act justly in each step of the criminal justice process. Yet if the very first, often pivotal, step in this process is largely misunderstood by the public, we risk losing the defendants’ right to fair proceedings. This court watchdog program is essential because it increased the accountability for all parties. It is time to shed light on the untold story of preliminary arraignments.

—Rachel, reflections from June 6, 2018


Disclaimer: The views of Philadelphia Bail Watch volunteers do not necessarily reflect the views of the Philadelphia Bail Fund and/or Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. Sign up to volunteer with Philadelphia Bail Watch here

On the use of video conference for bail hearings

The use of video conference [in Philadelphia bail hearings] is extremely dehumanizing and (I think) encourages representatives from the District Attorney's Office and the Public Defenders to not take bail hearings seriously. I’m used to seeing PDs on their feet fighting for clients in the Bronx. This was extremely distressing.

A system that deprives PDs of an initial interview denies them the important first step in building trust with clients and the opportunity to really fight back in bail hearings.

I don’t understand how public defenders can be expected to properly do their jobs without meeting with clients first. The bail determination is critical to the ultimate resolution of a case (we all know that incarcerated clients plead guilty much more frequently) and the fact that PDs aren’t able to meet clients and begin to understand their stories and tell them in court at this stage is horrifying.

Side note: I saw a magistrate acquiesce to $500,000 bail based on homicide charges that were dropped for a client only charged with VUFA (Violation of the Uniform Firearm Act). I’m not sure what bothers me more: That the magistrate considered information outside his purview (and clearly outside the criminal complaint) or that the public defender didn’t have a conniption when this happened and put up more of a fight.

— Anonymous law student, reflections from May 16, 2018


Disclaimer: The views of Philadelphia Bail Watch volunteers do not necessarily reflect the views of the Philadelphia Bail Fund and/or Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. Sign up to volunteer with Philadelphia Bail Watch here

Cash bail has not ended in Philadelphia

On a recent Monday evening, I entered a basement room of the Philadelphia Municipal Court building to witness the arraignment process of several recently arrested Philadelphians. Unlike those accused, I was physically present in the room with the people who would be deciding whether or not they would go to jail that evening. The room looked like a court, with a judge-like figure sitting up high in the center, a public defender representative to the left and a district attorney representative to the right. Where one might expect to see a defendant, however, sat a telescreen where, for mere minutes (and sometimes less) at a time, a parade of individuals who were apparently at various police stations across the city were trotted out to be arraigned. Of the 10 people who appeared on that screen, all but one was ordered to pay a substantial amount of cash in exchange for their freedom that night. This was not the ‘end of cash bail’ I had expected.

Each of the accused was asked their name, then read a list of what it was that they were accused. Using a hypnotic rhythm, the bail commissioner spoke at a rapid pace and with a strict aversion to any of the usual connecting phrases that turn collections of words into understandable sentences. It was not always clear that the person on the screen could hear what was being rattled off, though that did not seem to be of much concern to the three people on this side of the grainy connection. On a few occasions, the accused person would seem to be saying something on the other end but would go ignored, and the bail commissioner would continue his recitation. For those who persisted in speaking, the public defender representative would intervene, with what seemed to be her only job in the process, and instruct them not to talk. The DA representative would usually provide some information and then recommend ‘guideline’ bail, which would go unchallenged and be dutifully issued by the bail commissioner. 

The people appearing on the screen were apparently able to see into the room where we were seated, though they weren’t able to make direct eye contact with anyone on our side. They certainly couldn’t see the rather bored-looking public defender scrolling through text messages on her phone, nor the DA representative’s ongoing game of chess on his (both clearly visible from where we were sitting in the gallery). 

All of the people on the telescreen were black, and most were men. One of the two women, who was asked about and reported having a young child at home was ordered a special type of bail called sign-on bond. Although this is still bail, it allowed her to go home without posting any money. The bail commissioner informed her of this with a twinkle in his eye, seeming to suggest she should be grateful for his good deed.

After witnessing case after case result in a determination of cash bail ranging from $2,500 to $150,000, the final case was the most disappointing of all. A man on the screen who was accused of ‘pushing’ a police officer described the injuries he sustained at the hands of the police during the incident, including being tased, punched, kicked, and having his jaw dislocated. The DA representative recommended “release on own recognizance,” which would mean they could go home while awaiting trial. Nevertheless, and with no protestation from the public defender, the bail commissioner declared cash bail of $7,500. End of cash bail indeed.

— Corey, reflections from May 14, 2018


Disclaimer: The views of Philadelphia Bail Watch volunteers do not necessarily reflect the views of the Philadelphia Bail Fund and/or Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. Sign up to volunteer with Philadelphia Bail Watch here

Out of your comfort zone

Throughout my life, I have been a big proponent of truly experiencing things first hand — getting out of your comfort zone and becoming an active participant in what is happening around you.

Being an active citizen means so much more than just reading and discussing what you’ve heard in the news. When I started hearing more about cash bail in Philadelphia through discussions with friends and different news outlets, I realized that I did not know much about the criminal justice system as a whole. While I was aware of some of the issues, I knew I needed a deeper level of involvement if I wanted to formulate justifiable thoughts and contribute positively to bending the arc toward a more equitable system. Participating in the Philadelphia Bail Watch program was a chance to immerse myself in something I knew little about and push myself out of that comfort zone.

Reflecting on what I witnessed during Saturday afternoon bail hearings is still a difficult task. You can read things, you can watch the news and documentaries all you want, but to sit in that basement room, watching poor-quality CCTV conference calls and quick decisions being made, it all became a lot more real. And I quickly became a lot more uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because growing up in a small town in a white middle-class family, I was privileged enough to never have to know how bail worked. Uncomfortable because my reality is not the reality for any of those individuals on the screen that day and countless others. I watched about 15 people, mostly around my age, be given about 45 seconds of attention resulting in a decision determining if they could go home or continue to sit in jail — the latter of which I believe to have objectively detrimental impact on an individual. Uncomfortable because I could have easily made the same decisions as many of these individuals and, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be spending the night anywhere but my own home solely because I can afford to pay my way out.

It’s good to be uncomfortable at times; I think it’s where the true learning happens. But I’ll also be the first to admit it’s hard to be uncomfortable and it’s hard to know what to say about an experience like watching bail hearings. There’s a lot that is still upsetting as I am sitting here reflecting on that experience. I still have a lot of overwhelming feelings about how broken the whole system is and wanting to figure out ways to help make it at least slightly more equitable.

It comes from a place of privilege to sit on that side of the glass and dream of a better system than cash bail. For many Philadelphians, it’s simply the status quo and they aren’t able to see a brighter future. They’ve been beat down by a system that has clear biases across the board and trying to say otherwise would be wrong. I could go on for pages about what I feel is wrong and what needs to be changed, but I think a lot of it is the same things that have been said by many before me. And I think this next step is getting involved. Finding your little corner of the world in which you can become involved and informed and be a voice for those who aren’t able to be a loud enough voice for themselves. My experience with Philadelphia Bail Watch has provided me with that little corner of the world to know where to begin and I will continue to be involved and have more of those uncomfortable conversations. And maybe, over time, I’ll be able to better articulate to others what this process looks and feels like, and why it is problematic. Or, even better, more people will get involved and be able to reflect for themselves.

— Christine, reflections from April 28, 2018


Disclaimer: The views of Philadelphia Bail Watch volunteers do not necessarily reflect the views of the Philadelphia Bail Fund and/or Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. Sign up to volunteer with Philadelphia Bail Watch here