ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — John Z. Murphy Jr. spent 42 days in Northampton County Jail on misdemeanor charges because he couldn’t come up with $800 in bail money. In fact, the 34-year-old Allentown man would still be in prison awaiting his unresolved case, if not for an initiative the county court recently implemented.Frustrated that too many defendants were languishing behind bars for lack of bail, Northampton County in late April launched a long-planned effort to make it easier for people charged with minor crimes to stay out of jail before trial.
It seeks to avoid incarcerations like that of Murphy, who was freed in June by a judge who granted him unsecured bail on his simple assault case, allowing him to be released without having to post any money.
The push is part of a national conversation around bail reform, as advocates question whether it is appropriate to imprison defendants before they have been convicted merely because they lack financial means.”We know that when you have a system that depends on money, then the only thing you know about the people who are in jail is that they’re poor,” said Nancy Fishman, project director at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that seeks to improve fairness in the courts.Fishman and other reformers say pretrial incarceration has cascading effects on defendants, causing them to lose their jobs and housing, and breaking up their families. People jailed before trial are more likely to plead guilty and receive harsher sentences. And those who scrape together the money to post bail often do so by borrowing from relatives and friends, creating additional financial stress.
Because of its often stringent approach to bail, Pennsylvania houses more pre-trial inmates than all but a handful of states. Many jurisdictions are examining whether cash needs to be part of the equation — or whether the decision should be based on risk, and not wherewithal.