New Evidence Backs Calls to End Cash Bail

    In February 2018, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced that his office would stop seeking monetary bail for defendants accused of some low-level felonies and misdemeanor charges.

    After an arrest—but before trial—most states, including Pennsylvania, require people to pay money before they can be released, regardless of whether their arrest was lawful or not. If a person is wealthy, they (or their family) can often pay it themselves. If a person cannot afford it, they must decide between: remaining in jail for as long as it takes for their case to go through the system (which can be years); pleading guilty and giving up the right to defend themselves at trial; or paying a non-refundable fee to a for-profit bail bonds company. (In Philly, there is also the possibility of paying a deposit of 10 percent of the total bail amount to the court, which makes bail bonds less common there than in other jurisdictions.)

    Under Krasner’s new policy, prosecutors in cases of specific low-level charges were told to recommend that defendants be released on their own recognizance (ROR), meaning that they could return home without having to pay either the court directly or a bail bondsman.

    “We don’t imprison the poor in the United States for the so-called crime of poverty,” Krasner said at the time.

    The affected charges included DUI, intentional possession of a controlled substance (unless in an amount over 5 grams or containing fentanyl), possession of marijuana (and possession with intent to deliver as long as it was 5 pounds or under), and prostitution:

    Proponents of cash bail claim that it is necessary to prevent defendants from fleeing, to secure their reappearance in court, and prevent them from committing new crimes. But a new paper suggests otherwise.

    The authors examined the effects of Philly’s “No-Cash-Bail” reform policy and found that while it did increase the percentage of people released without bail, it caused “no change in failure-to-appear [FTA] in court or in recidivism, suggesting that reductions in the use of monetary bail can be made without significant adverse consequences.”

    Over the past few years, a wave of bail reform has been building across the country—at federal, state and local levels—aimed at getting rid of our current wealth-based pretrial system.

    The paper represents welcome evidence for advocates of reform. Its authors, Aurelie Ouss, assistant professor of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Megan Stevenson, assistant professor of Law at George Mason University, write that their study “is one of the first to directly assess the effects of cash bail on court compliance and offending, and to evaluate a ‘no cash bail’ reform initiated by a prosecutor.”

    Their paper, they add, “also presents some of the first evidence on the role ‘progressive prosecutors’ can play in bail reform. Despite having no direct control over the bail decision, we find that prosecutors still exert meaningful influence.”

    Photo via flickr/Andy Thrasher.

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