‘A de facto debtor’s prison’: Pgh. Rep. Summer Lee wants to end cash bail | Monday Morning Coffee

January 18, 2021 7:15 am

State Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, speaks at a 2021 state Capitol news conference where she and other Pa. House Democrats rolled out a package of police reform proposals (Capital-Star photo).

Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

With most of public life rightfully on hold today to honor the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we’re turning our attentions this morning to a policy debate that’s both a civl rights and criminal justice reform issue: Whether the Legislature should move to end cash bail in Pennsylvania.

And as far as one western Pennsylvania lawmaker is concerned, the answer is an unambiguous “yes.”

Last week, state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Alleghenybegan seeking co-sponsors for a bill that would impose a statewide ban on a facet of the criminal justice system that reformers have long said singles out the poor and people of color.

“The bail process in Pennsylvania too often centers on an individual’s ability to pay rather than the individual’s risk to public safety,” Lee wrote in a ‘Dear Colleague‘ memo, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper reported over the weekend. “Because it includes no review of one’s ability to pay monetary bail, it frequently assigns cash bail to those who do not have the means to pay for release. This leads to lengthy periods of imprisonment, sometimes years, putting employment, housing, child custody and other means of a stable and productive life at risk.”

As the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison reported in this indispensable 2019 explainer, reformers, including the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, have argued that the system, in the instance of Philadelphia’s system, “effectively criminalizes poverty.”

(Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

In her co-sponsorship memo, Lee notes that it’s Pennsylvania taxpayers who end up footing the bill for what amounts to unconstitutional pre-trial detention. That’s because “even six months of imprisonment can cost taxpayers $20,000,” City Paper reported.

To further bolster her case, Lee’s memo points to a 2016 ruling by the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which called the state’s bail system “a flaw in our system of justice” and “a threat to equal justice under the law.”
The case dealt with a Lehigh County man who spent 88 days in jail because he was unable to post $20,000 bail for allegedly stealing $130 in merchandise. The defendant, Joseph Curry, ended up pleading no contest with no admission of guilt. While he was in detention, Curry missed the birth of his first child, lost his job, and narrowly averted losing his home and car, Lee wrote.

Citing a 2019 study by the Vera InstituteLee noted that more than 64 percent of people who have been imprisoned nationwide since 2015 have been pre-trial detainees, most of whom have been unable to post bail. Pennsylvania has the ninth-highest rate of pretrial nationwide, imprisoning 270 people for every 100,000 state residents, Lee wrote.

“Cash bail is an antiquated sect of our justice system that creates a de facto debtors’ prison by disproportionately jailing the indigent,” Lee wrote in her memo. “The costs averted by ending the mass incarceration of pretrial detainees will more than compensate for bail maintenance fees collected by counties throughout the Commonwealth. It is time for us to exit the dark age of the cash bail system, and instead return to non-financial release using standardized, validated risk assessments to determine who and how to release.”

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Police and journalists outnumbered protesters at a Sunday rally at the state Capitol. Though officials braced for the worst, in Pennsylvania, for all the concern about the expected in-flux of pro-Trump extremists, the day was mostly quiet. Our Stephen Caruso has the details from Harrisburg in this story running down the action nationwide.

In this week’s edition of the Numbers RacketCassie Miller dives into the data on the states that did — and did not — make the most progress on matters of racial equity in 2020. You can see how Pennsylvania finished as well.

State Sen. David Arnold, a Lebanon County Republican and former prosecutor, died Sunday of brain cancer, his office announced. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered state flags to half-staff, as lawmakers paid tribute.

In a special feature, Penn State journalism student Kristin Gjelaj goes deep on the increasing number of women in elected office and the ongoing efforts to further expand their ranks

On our Commentary Page this morning, Jarvis DeBerry, of our sibling site, the Louisiana Illuminator, argues that Republican efforts to claim the mantle of MLK will ring particularly hollow this year.

En la Estrella-Capital: La tercera vez la definitiva? La fecha límite de conteo del censo cambia … de nuevo, por Cassie MillerY en un intento por acelerar la introducción, los federales le dicen a los estados que le administren la vacuna del COVID-19 a cualquier persona mayor de 65 años, por Laura Olson.

Senator Jake Corman takes questions from reporters (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

The Inquirer
 fact-checks Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman’s, R-Centre, argument that false election claims didn’t play ‘any role’ in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
The Allegheny County Port Authority is holding its last rounds of public hearings on a planned rapid-transit system connecting Pittsburgh and Oakland, the Post-Gazette reports.
PennLive takes a look at U.S. Rep. Scott Perry’s, R-10th Districtattempts to invalidate Pennsylvania’s electoral votes and his refusal to wear a mask.
A Jim Thorpe resident has been charged in connection with the Capitol riot, the Morning Call reports.
The Citizens-Voice looks at President-elect Joe Biden’s journey from Scranton to the White House.

Here’s your #ChesCo Instagram of the Day:

Amid a pandemic and unrestthis year’s MLK Day of Service looks very different, WHYY-FM reports.
Erie School Board President Tyler Titus is getting little support to ditch a Native American mascot at one city school, GoErie reports.
The Herald-Standard looks at the boom in pet adoptions during the pandemic. 
In addition to in-person protests, state capitols also are bracing for cyberattacks, reports.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, will resign her seat in the U.S. Senate today, as she prepares for Wednesday’s inauguration, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
Nothing. It’s a state and federal holiday. If you have the time and ability, please try to take advantage of the many service and educational opportunities on this very important day.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Belated best wishes go out this morning to reader Ewa Swope, who celebrated on Sunday. Best wishes go out this morning to reader Matt Kemeny, and to longtime Friend O’the BlogVictor Wills, at the Pa. Secretary of State’s Office, both of whom celebrate today. Congratulations all around, friends.

Heavy Rotation.
For today’s MLK Day holiday, we’re going with an old favorite from U2. But it’s not the one you’d think, though it is off 1985’s indelible ‘Unforgettable Fire‘ LP. Here’s MLK,‘ which is quiet and transcendent, and just the antidote to these blustery times.

Monday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
downed the Capitals on Sunday, winning 4-3 in a shootout for their first victory of the new season. Pens goalie Casey DeSmith had 20 saves for Pittsburgh in his first start in almost two years.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.