One year ago, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced that his office would no longer seek money bail for a list of offenses that make up 61 percent of all cases in the Philadelphia criminal justice system.

On Tuesday, Krasner, along with Mayor Jim Kenney, City Council members and the Defender Association of Philadelphia, held a news conference to outline the impact of the reform.

“What we had a year ago was not fair. We do not, we should not, imprison people for poverty,” Krasner said. By the district attorney’s count, 1,750 additional defendants were released without bail during 2018, with no increase in recidivism.

Krasner added that he believes the policy is making Philadelphia safer in the long term: “When you don’t tear apart people’s lives, and when you keep them in contact with the things that keep them on course, they are less likely to commit crimes in the future.”

The district attorney’s claims are in part backed up by a study published this week that found the policy shift resulted in a 22 percent decline in the number of defendants who spent at least one night in jail. However, there was no impact on longer jail stays.

“The big thing that it did was that it changed the conditions of release for defendants in Philadelphia. Concretely, more defendants were out of jail not owing any money,” said Aurelie Ouss, a University of Pennsylvania criminologist who co-authored the study with Megan Stevenson, professor of law at George Mason University.

More important is that even without the incentive of a bail refund, defendants continued showing up for court in about the same numbers, she noted.

“We find no effect on failure to appear [in court], on violent offending, or on recidivism,” Ouss said.

According to the First Judicial District, Philadelphia defendants’ court-appearance rate in 2018 was the highest it has been in a decade, nearly 97 percent in Common Pleas Court and 87.5 percent in Municipal Court.

Court appearance rates in Philadelphia.
Court appearance rates in Philadelphia.

Krasner announced one year ago that his office would no longer request money bail for defendants charged with certain misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies — a list of 25 charges that included prostitution, intoxicated driving, and some burglaries. Instead, the office is encouraging trial commissioners to release such defendants on nonmonetary conditions or on their own recognizance.

The listed charges represent 61 percent of all cases coming through the criminal justice system in the city — cases in which bail was often already set as low as $1,000. When Krasner announced the policy, he estimated it could affect 4,000 defendants a year.

The actual impact has been more modest: While bail commissioners have released 90 percent of individuals facing misdemeanor charges identified by Krasner as not warranting bail, they have continued to assign bail in two-thirds of felony cases that qualify for no bail under his policy.

Krasner said that moving forward, the hope is the data released Tuesday will encourage bail commissioners to release more defendants on recognizance. “I think the way we can get them to listen to our recommendations is to show them this report," he said, "and to show them we were not endangering the public.”

According to the researchers, the largest impact was on individuals who would have under previous policy received low bail amounts, $5,000 or less. The number of people assigned very low bail fell by 41 percent.

The impact of these changes could be substantial. Critics note that bail decisions often reflect racial disparities, and that being held before trial frequently provides a powerful incentive to plead guilty.

In previous research into Philadelphia’s bail system, Stevenson found that defendants held on bail were 13 percent more likely to be convicted, and served sentences that were on average 41 percent longer than those who were released pretrial.

Krasner came into office in the middle of an effort to reduce the jail population through a series of changes supported by the MacArthur Foundation. Philadelphia’s jail population, now less than 4,700, has fallen 24 percent in the past year to the lowest level in two decades.

“We’re investing in our communities rather than in costly incarceration,” Kenney said Tuesday.

Since July 2015, the number of prisoners has declined 43 percent and the population held only on bail of $50,000 or less has plummeted by two-thirds, to just about 330 people as of December 2018. All told, about one in five jail inmates is now in jail only for bail; the rest are serving sentences or are locked up on detainers, usually for violations of parole or probation.

Kenney cited police diversion into treatment programs, the early bail review hearings set up by the courts, and a bail-advocate program created by the Defender Association as driving that progress.

But, he noted that those successes have not moved the needle on the racial disparities in the city’s criminal justice system.

“People of color still remain highly overrepresented. ... The rate of racial and ethnic disparities in the system remain the same,” Kenney said. “We need to do better.”

What’s needed now, Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey said, is a focus on support for people who are released — to connect them with transportation, housing, treatment, and other services they may need to stay in the community and get to court. She said her office and others are already doing that.

“We’re doing this without a risk assessment,” she said, referencing the city’s controversial plan to put in place a pretrial risk-assessment tool. “We’re doing this with human assessment, human capacity.”

She said the city needs to push further.

“The only way we’re really going to make a dent in racial disparity is if we get rid of cash,” Bradford-Grey said. “Cash should never be a determination as to whether people get in or out. It should be an individualized assessment.”