By Chris Palmer
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said Wednesday that prosecutors would no longer seek cash bail for people accused of some misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, a significant policy shift that could have a wide-ranging impact on the city's criminal justice system.
Speaking at a news conference at his Center City office, Krasner said the practice of holding suspects in jail until trial just because they don't have money to pay for their release is "simply not fair." Krasner had vowed on the campaign trail to curb the practice, and he made his announcement surrounded by clergy leaders and city officials who praised the decision.
"It is time for us as a criminal justice system to do better," Krasner said.
The announcement places Philadelphia in line with a bail reform movement sweeping through other cities and states across the country. New Jersey all but eliminated use of cash bail last year, and New York is seeking to reduce its use as well. Washington, D.C., has largely avoided use of cash bail for nearly two decades.
Nationally, about 60 percent of all jail inmates were detained while awaiting trial, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and critics have long argued that jailing suspects unless they can pay disproportionately punishes minorities and the poor.
In Philadelphia, about 20 percent of the 6,100 people in city jails were being held because they had not posted money to meet their cash bail requirements, according to Julie Wertheimer, chief of staff in the city's Office of Criminal Justice.
The city has been experimenting since last year with programs designed to give people more options for pretrial release, part of a $3.5 million grant awarded in 2016 aimed at reducing the city's prison population.
Still, prosecutors can have significant sway in a courtroom when bail is set, and Krasner said his staff estimated as many as 4,000 cases per year -- about 10 percent of the office's total caseload -- now could result in a defendant being released instead of sitting in jail for failure to pay.
Advocates and allies praised the announcement. Standing alongside the district attorney at his news conference were City Council members Jannie Blackwell, Curtis Jones, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez; Minister Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia NAACP; and Keir Bradford -- Grey, head of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
Jones vowed to work with Krasner's office and other city agencies to ensure a successful rollout of the program.
"He's the reason for the party," Jones said of Krasner. "But he's not going to be the only one dancing."
Mayor Kenney, in a statement, called the move a "significant step" toward "creating a more fair and efficient justice system."
And Joshua Glenn, 29, a Krasner supporter and a member of grassroots organizations including the #No215Jail Coalition, said in an interview that he hopes the policy is a sign that prosecutors may continue to reduce -- or even eliminate -- the use of cash bail.
Krasner's announcement does not end cash bail altogether. His office will still seek to jail suspects accused of violent crimes including aggravated assault, rape, and murder. And prosecutors still may seek cash bail for nonviolent crimes depending on the circumstances and a defendant's criminal record. If someone commits a string of thefts, for example, or has a history of fleeing the area, prosecutors can use their discretion and ask for cash bail.
The District Attorney's Office also cannot unilaterally stop the practice of detaining suspects, even for nonviolent crimes, because judges ultimately decide which defendants can be released and under what conditions. A court spokesman declined to comment on the issue Wednesday night.
Krasner said the policy would apply to 25 charges, including driving under the influence, prostitution, resisting arrest, and some burglaries. Drug-possession charges also were included, the policy said, though only if people possessed smaller weights of certain narcotics, and never if they were found in possession of fentanyl or had a recent history of committing violent crimes.
Krasner acknowledged that other goals he hoped could accompany the policy have not yet been implemented. Washington, D.C., for example, has established a robust system for defendants to check in while awaiting trial, and Krasner said such appointments could be used to ensure that defendants take drug tests or meet with mental health counselors. It was not clear whether Philadelphia's court system could currently accommodate a similar system, and, if it can't, who would pay for the necessary changes.
"We aren't there yet," he said.
The district attorney also said that his office cannot immediately apply new bail conditions to people currently in jail for offenses that would qualify for release under the policy. He did say that defense attorneys could file petitions seeking a bail reduction, and that prosecutors would honor the new policy for any case that made it before a judge.
The policy shift represents a significant departure from just a decade ago. In 2009, after the Inquirer found that the city had nearly 50,000 fugitives and scores of defendants with a history of skipping court appearances, the court system moved to impose higher bails and more accountability measures to account for the system's perceived shortcomings.
Krasner, a career defense attorney before he became the city's top prosecutor last month, said he believed that holding people in jail for days or weeks -- or longer -- over an inability to pay bail for minor crimes was "imprisonment for poverty."
Bail reform efforts elsewhere also have been generally well-received. New Jersey's overhaul of its bail system has been praised by advocates as a national model, and that state recently reported that its prison population dropped 20 percent in the last year.