Lehigh County commissioners may do away with cash bail
Lehigh County may be on the verge of doing away with cash bail. Proponents of the measure spoke Sept. 12 to commissioners and county administrative officials.
Allentown resident Julie Thomases said, “We are here to make a case for doing away with cash bail for nonviolent 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 before additional proceedings or trial.”
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 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 the district detains roughly 9 percent of people who have been arrested and that it has a high court appearance rate of 91 percent and a public safety rate of 88 percent.
Marosy said only 12 percent of the district’s jail population is pretrial, compared to the national rate of 63 percent. He said the district is “widely recognized as a high-functioning pretrial justice system.”
Allentown resident Dr. Jennifer Swann, a professor at Lehigh University, said, “Lehigh County has the third highest rate of pretrial incarceration among the 67 counties in Pennsylvania.
“Pretrial detention disproportionately affects minorities at every step of the criminal justice system,” Swann said. “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, general manager for Diane’s 24/7 Bail Bonds in Allentown, said, “Lehigh County’s bail is relatively low.”
He said the average bail 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,” Essig said. “We have an equality factor in the Lehigh County pretrial system, which goes to bat for an accused person and makes recommendations to the judge.”
Commissioner Dr. Percy Dougherty, who said despite being a “dyed-in-the-wool Republican,” 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 Lehigh County Jail.