Changes in Philly courts mean good news and bad news for criminal justice reform

One change will help the poorest defendants; the other may result in more detentions.

Pat Loeb
October 11, 2018 - 1:29 pm
Kenyatta Johnson led the effort to stop keeping 30 percent of the bail that defendants post.

Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia's criminal court system changed two of its rules on Wednesday. One was a victory for criminal justice reform advocates. One was an unexpected setback.

The advocates, including city councilmen Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones, Derek Green, Council President Darrell Clarke and Mayor Jim Kenney, held a news conference Thursday to celebrate the elimination of a rule that allowed the courts to keep 30 percent of defendants' bail money even if they appeared in court, which is the purpose of bail. 

That 30 percent generated nearly $3 million a year for the city, but the city is less interested in the money than in reforming a system that has put thousands of people in prison, simply because they cannot make bail.

The city is trying to eliminate cash bail altogether. Mayor Kenney says this is a small but important step in that direction.

"People are living in poverty in the city," he said. "Some of those folks are also involved in the criminal justice system and we want to make sure we don't hold on to money that could be used to buy food and pay rent."

Even as they praised the court for eliminating the 30 percent bail payment, though, the advocates were blindsided by another court move: rescinding a rule that there must be a hearing before a person can be held on a probation or parole violation.

"We fear the courts have coupled a long overdue positive policy change with an even more pernicious, inhumane one that will give them ever more ability to cage humans at will," said a statement from the #No215Jail Coalition and the Community Bail Fund distributed at the press conference.

Judge Leon Tucker, who was there to represent the court system, presented an unusual defense for the move.

"The rule wasn't being followed so we rescinded it," he said. "We're in the process now of putting together another rule that would take its place that would be more in tune with what we're actually doing."

Tucker said judges only lodge detainers when absolutely necessary for the safety of the community. But parole and probation violations are the biggest driver of the prison population, responsible for 55 percent of all inmates.

Elected officials declined to discuss that rule change. 
        
Public Defender Keir Bradford-Gray spoke cautiously. She had recently sent the courts a letter requesting that judges begin to enforce their own rule for a hearing before detention.

"I'm looking forward to figuring out what's next," she said. "The reason we sent the letter in the first place is not only were we not following the rule but the way we were issuing detainers was unconstitutional. People, if they were doing well on probation, why should they be locked up for a mere arrest when there's still a presumption of innocence? If they were checking in, nothing was going wrong, contact with the police especially in certain neighborhoods should not be the impetus to detain a person without a hearing, without an understanding of whether the allegations are even provable."

Bradford-Gray says she'll be meeting with the judges next week to decide next steps.