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