Pennsylvania should weigh cash bail merits

A question that the Pennsylvania Legislature should weigh is whether cash bail should be eliminated or kept as an option for people accused of having committed crimes in this state.

A new law eliminating cash bail will take effect in California on Oct. 1, 2019. The District of Columbia, as well as Kentucky and New Jersey, already have almost eliminated bail in practice, according to an article in the Aug. 29 Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Ohio currently is studying a legislative proposal that would provide a structure for judges to evaluate the risks of defendants, before bail is set.

Also, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last month began seeking a new bail-overhaul proposal aimed at more strictly regulating how judges set bond based on the risk posed by a defendant.

Utah has implemented a risk-based system similar to what Ohio is weighing, and there are counties in some other states trying to imitate them.

Pennsylvania seldom is a leader regarding new ideas; thus, it’s no surprise that the Keystone State is not among the handful of states already giving serious thought to the cash-bail-elimination question.

But considering how such a change could reduce prison overcrowding and, thus, scale back some of the high costs associated with operating prisons in the commonwealth, a serious look at the question might be to Pennsylvania’s ultimate benefit.

Merely studying the issue would not obligate this state to implement a change. However, that study might produce some eye-opening findings from which suggestions could emanate, even if total cash-bail elimination were not one of them.

California’s new law isn’t being embraced by everyone. For example, a lobbyist for the California Bail Agents Association has contended that the law will lead some of those accused of crimes to skip out on their court dates.

It’s not a surprise that the lobbyist also is concerned about jobs in the cash-bail industry; he predicted that 7,000 jobs would be lost once the new law takes effect.

Beginning Oct. 1 of next year, people accused of crimes in California will no longer be required to hand over money for bail. Rather, public employees of that state will conduct a risk assessment and then recommend to a judge whether the accused person should be kept in jail or be released either on his or her own recognizance or with conditions.

Options could include GPS trackers and home detention. Prosecutors will be permitted to request detention.

California’s law will go further than other states’ measures by officially ending cash bail rather than just halting its use in most cases, according to Amber Widgery, a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Consider New Jersey’s experience: Widgery told the Journal that as more low-risk defendants were released in 2017 without cash bail, the state’s prison population dropped 20 percent during that year.

The Journal referred to California’s action as “a major step forward for a growing national movement,” noting many people’s belief that one drawback of the current system is that it unfairly confines poor people.

Pennsylvania lawmakers should weigh the advantages of a law similar to California’s and open a dialogue with state residents and other entities.

No matter the outcome, the Keystone State will have grounds for feeling satisfied that it didn’t ignore the issue.

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