The First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, which covers the Philadelphia County court system, announced the change at a news conference. The revision means the city will return the entire bail amount to defendants who meet their court obligations. The previous rule allowed the city to keep up to 30 percent of a defendant's bail deposit.
"I believe justice has to be just and fair. You still have to hold individuals accountable, but it can't be a system that favors one group of individuals versus another," said City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. "When we talk about economic impact of using cash bail to detain individuals, we know some people have the ability to make cash bail in a timely fashion and some people don't. But we wanted to look at more progressive ways to make sure people come to court."
The money - about $3 million annually - was sent to the city's general fund, not used to specifically fund the court's operations. Mayor Jim Kenney commended the move, saying the money was not included in the budget plan this year because officials had hoped that the court would agree to eliminate the practice.
The change came as the court decided to do away with another rule that outlined policies on detainers, or orders to keep people on parole or probation in jail if they are arrested on a new crime.
The court plans to replace the rule requiring hearings before issuing a detainer with a rule that reflects the current practices of the court, said Criminal Division Supervising Judge Leon Tucker. It is too early to provide details, he said, but the detainers will be used only when "absolutely necessary."
Public defenders and criminal justice reform advocates have complained that the courts have often issued automatic detainers for lower-level crimes without holding hearings.
The group #No215Jail Coalition and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund commended the change to bail release but raised concerns about the elimination of the rules for detainers without any replacement ready.
"Rather than abiding by this rule and ensuring that defendants experience some measure of due process before having their freedom taken away, the court has instead chosen to simply eliminate the rule they had long ignored," a statement said.
Philadelphia has been highlighted in recent months by criminal justice reform advocates for having an abnormally high number of people on probation or parole, and Tucker said Thursday that about 55 percent of the city's jail population is being held on detainers.
Philadelphia departments have rolled out criminal justice reforms over the past few years aimed at reducing the jail population significantly by 2020.
The changes are spurred by a $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge grant and include creating divisionary programs, speeding up the process for bail and arraignment hearings, eliminating bail for lower level offenses, and other modifications.
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