Bail System ‘Improvements’ Considered by Pennsylvania Supreme Court

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As a result of a lawsuit filed last year by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s court leadership has agreed to changes that could lead to many more people being released before trial. Now, it’s up to the state Supreme Court to decide whether those changes go far enough, in a ruling that advocates hope could have consequences far beyond Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

As bail reform inches forward in Pennsylvania, it’s playing out cautiously and quietly. Advancing through litigation rather than legislation, it bears little resemblance to sweeping changes in New Jersey and in New York, which in January became the latest state to eliminate money bail for most nonviolent offenses — and has since faced intense backlash. In Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court noted at the outset of its review: “Any attempt to advocate for the abolition of cash bail will not be entertained.” And the special master appointed to oversee the review, Senior Judge John Cleland, declined to even use the phrase bail reform in his December report to the court, arguing the system is fundamentally sound. “Accordingly, I have described my assignment as one to suggest bail system ‘improvements,’ rather than to suggest bail system ‘reforms.’” The changes Philadelphia’s First Judicial District has already agreed to make include starting with the presumption that a defendant can be released before trial; requiring that magistrates consider their ability to pay before imposing money bail; and, for the first time, ensuring that defendants have a chance to speak confidentially with a lawyer before the preliminary arraignment.

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