In yet another headline-grabbing announcement, Philadelphia’s new District Attorney Larry Krasner on Wednesday proclaimed the end of cash bail requirements for low-level offenses effective immediately.
"There is absolutely no reason why someone who will show up for court, is not a flight risk, and is no threat to their neighbors and community, needs to sit in jail for days because they can't post a small amount of bail," Krasner said.
The announcement comes three weeks after Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution calling on the DA and state officials to “reduce reliance” on cash bail, which it called a burden on low-income defendants and a purveyor of poverty.
Moving forward, the district attorney's office will recommend that cash bail not be set for people arrested for one of 25 non-violent offenses outlined by the district attorney's office. These include driving under the influence, personal use marijuana possession, retail theft, forgery, prostitution and burglary where no one is present.
Many people in Philadelphia "plead guilty because they want that pressure of incarceration off of them," Councilman Curtis Jones said during an impassioned speech in January. "They lose their families, dignity and respect, and it creates a catastrophic series of events they can’t get out of it."
Jones, co-chair of the criminal justice reform committee, framed bail as a 1,000-year-old medieval tool that badly needs a "tune up."
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Of the total offenders held pretrial in Philadelphia jails, nearly 33 percent are held because they cannot afford cash bail, according to a report issued by Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz. More than half remain jailed for more than 30 days.
As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 6,100 people are in Philadelphia's jail system, said Julie Wertheimer, the mayor's chief of staff for criminal justice. Approximately 21 percent of that population is being held on cash bail.
Joshua Glenn was 16 years old when he was arrested for aggravated assault and attempted murder. The soon-to-be high school drop out could not pay his $2,000 bail. As a result, he was jailed for 18 months, he said.
Assuming his case would be lost, even his attorney encouraged him to make a deal rather than plead not guilty.
"I had to sit there ... until they said, 'Okay, we don't have enough evidence. You can go free,'" Glenn told NBC10.
His case was eventually dismissed. But during his 1.5 years in jail, Glenn missed his prom. His parents split up.
"It was hard to get back on my feet," he said. "If somebody is rich, they can get out tomorrow. But if you're poor, you have to sit in jail."
Nationally, the average bail has skyrocketed to between $25,000 and $55,000 per defendant, according to a Princeton University study. But in Philadelphia, which has the fourth largest jail population of the major U.S. cities, only about 50 percent of defendants were able to post bail when it was set at $5,000 or less.
New Jersey all but eliminated its cash bail system nearly two years ago. Since then, hundreds of bail bond businesses closed. Former bail bondsman Darren Hersch, who owned Shamrock Bail Bonds in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, worried the regional trend would impact his own company.
"I wanted to get out because I saw writing on the wall," he said. "It presented an existential threat to the industry."
Hersch is now in a new line of work, he said.
In 1991, Washington, D.C., ended its bail bond system and now releases nearly 90 percent of pretrial defendants. Philadelphia officials have repeatedly called for a similar program to be instituted here as crime rates continue to drop throughout the city.
City officials have offered various alternatives to the bail bond system for low level offenders, including issuing citations instead of arrests and monitoring defendants who are on bail.
Removing cash bail for certain offenses is just the first phase of a multi-phase criminal justice reform plan, Krasner said.