County may do away with cash bail
Lehigh Valley is on the verge of doing away with cash bail, if the enthusiasm level in the Lehigh County Commissioner’s chamber is a predictor. Proponents of the measure spoke Sept. 14 to what seemed to be a very supportive group of commissioners and county administrative officials.
Allentown resident Julie Thomases said, “We are here to make a case for doing away with cash bail for non-violent and low-risk offenders, as has Northampton County, Philadelphia and other counties, cities and states.
“Cash bail is a system of pretrial release that forces a person who has been accused but not yet found guilty of a crime to pay a fee to be released from custody prior to additional proceedings or trial,” said Thomases.
She told commissioners this system “unjustly puts people into prison because they are poor, increases costs to the taxpayer, and is being challenged in many courts as unconstitutional.”
John Paul Marosy, a member of Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Allentown and a resident of Bethlehem, supported the idea by presenting some statistics from other municipalities that have done away with cash bail.
According to Marosy, under the District of Columbia’s law, no one can be held in jail before trial because of lack of money. He said D.C. detains roughly 9 percent of people who have been arrested. He said D.C. has a high court appearance rate of 91 percent and a public safety rate of 88 percent.
Marosy said only 12 percent of D.C.’s jail population is pretrial ,compared to the national rate of 63 percent. He said D.C.’s law allows for pretrial detention if “no condition or set of conditions” can ensure court appearance. He said the District is “widely recognized as a high-functioning pretrial justice system.”
Allentown resident Dr. Jennifer Swann, a professor at Lehigh University, spoke briefly, saying, “Lehigh County has the third highest rate of pretrial incarceration among the 67 counties in PA.
“Pretrial detention disproportionately affects minorities at every step of the criminal justice system,” said Swann. “Blacks are more likely to be searched for contraband, experience police force, be charged with a serious offense, be convicted and incarcerated than are whites. Racial disparities are particularly prominent in setting bail.”
Swann said black defendants are 3.6 percent more likely to be assigned monetary bail than white defendants, and once assigned bail, to receive bail amounts that are almost $10,000 higher.
Danny Essig, the general manager for Diane’s 24/7 Bail Bonds in Allentown, in an interview, said, “Lehigh County’s bail is relatively low.”
He said that the average bail here is about $7,000 as compared with the average bail in California which he thought was about $50,000.
“The current system is very fair,” said Essig. “We have an equality factor in the Lehigh County pre-trial system which goes to bat for an accused person and makes recommendation to the judge.”
Commissioner Dr. Percy Dougherty, who said even though he is a “dyed-in-the-wool Republican,” he considered the idea to be fiscally conservative.
Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong volunteered to be on a committee “to review the basic issue.”
Dougherty approved the idea of a committee, but reminded the commissioners and the audience that setting bonds is the “purview of the president judge.”
Commissioners also gave their final approval of the appointment of Janine M. Donate as the new warden of the Lehigh County Jail.