Illinois is ending cash bail. Does it have the blueprint for Pa.? | Wednesday Morning Coffee

January 27, 2021 7:10 am

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

As progressives in the Pennsylvania Legislature gear up for another run at eliminating cash bail in the new session, they might want to train their gaze a few hundred miles to the west for a blueprint on how to get it over the goal line.

The Land of Lincoln will start transitioning away from cash bail starting in January 2023, The Pantagraph, of Bloomington, Ill., reported. The legislation still awaits the signature of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat.

Reformers have long sought to eliminate cash bail, which can result in people spending weeks or months in jail as they await trial. Those most often caught in what some call the criminalization of poverty, are people of color and the poor. Abolitionists, as The Pantagraph notes, also have argued that the presumption of innocence should carry with it the presumption of freedom, except for the most severe and extreme cases.

In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Summer Lee, a progressive Democrat from Pittsburgh, recently began seeking co-sponsors for a bill that would end cash bail in Pennsylvania. Lee, who is Black, has called the state’s current system a “de facto debtor’s prison.”

“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. “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.”

(Image via The Philadelphia Gay News)

While it wasn’t without its struggles, abolitionists in Illinois enjoy one advantage that their Keystone State colleagues do not: Democrats control the Illinois governor’s office and both chambers of the General Assembly.

But exception language embedded in the Illinois bill could provide a balm to legislative Republicans in Pennsylvania, and to the remaining Blue Dogs who still remain in the Democratic caucuses in the state House and Senate.

Under the Illinois legislation, people would be kept in jail if they allegedly committed “forcible felonies such as first-degree murder, sexual assault, arson and any other felony involving the use or threat of physical force; stalking and aggravated stalking where the defendant poses a threat to the victim if released; abuse or battery of a family member where their release poses a danger to that family member; gun crimes where the defendant poses a threat to a specific, identifiable person; and cases where the defendant has committed a felony that wouldn’t otherwise result in detention but they are considered a high risk of fleeing prosecution and missing their court date,” according to the Pantagraph.

The Pantagraph goes on to report that the Illinois bill also puts conditions on pre-trial release, and while “the legislation provides guidelines as to what should be considered when establishing conditions – such as the nature of the crime, the evidence available and the history of the defendant – it does not establish what those conditions will be.”

Libertarian and small government conservatives also might be lured in by language in the Illinois law requiring the state to prove that someone should be detained, rather than putting that burden on the accused.

All of that — and more — could be hashed out in the committee debate over the bill.

At a time when Pennsylvania, and county governments, are looking to tighten their budgetary belts, ending cash bail could end up being a win for reformers and the fiscally conscious alike. And that’s the coalition that’s worked together on successful reform pushes in the past.

In her co-sponsorship memo, Lee argued that even six months’ of imprisonment costs up to $20,000 per-person, or nearly half the $42,727 it costs to house an incarcerated individual in Pennsylvania’s state prisons, according to 2015 data compiled by the Vera Institute.

“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.)

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Best wishes go out this morning to Erik Arneson, in the office of state Treasurer Stacy Garrity; Julia Terruso, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Megan Lehman at the Pa. Dept. of Environmental Protection, all of whom celebrate today. Congratulations, and enjoy the day.

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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.