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Across Pennsylvania, magisterial district judges (MDJs), the elected officials who set bail, use cash bail more than any other option for release. Analyzing court data from 2016 and 2017, we found that MDJs set cash bail in 43.4% of all cases. This, despite the fact that Pennsylvania law requires MDJs to first consider the least restrictive type of bail: release on recognizance (ROR), which allows a person to avoid incarceration on the promise that they will return for their day in court. Only if the MDJ determines that ROR is insufficient to ensure future appearance, may they consider other bail types. However, the data reveals that ROR is used far less frequently, in just 22.5% of cases.
According to 2016-2017 data, high rates of cash bail are prevalent across the state — not just in big cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Seven counties used cash bail in more than half of all cases: Lehigh, Delaware, Lackawanna, Berks, Beaver, Northampton, and Lawrence. Meanwhile, release on recognizance rates vary widely county by county. A number of counties set ROR in more than half of total cases. But in Cameron, Elk, and Tioga, the ROR rate was zero. In ten additional counties, the ROR rate was less than one half of one percent.
In 2017, the average bail amount set in Pennsylvania was $38,433. To put that figure in perspective, $38,433 is more than half the average household income in the state. Most Americans do not have $500 in savings to cover an emergency, let alone the thousands of dollars required to pay for their pretrial release.
Across the state, more than half of all people assigned cash bail did not post it, often because they were unable to afford to pay. In the two-year period we analyzed, this led to more than 97,000 cases in which the defendant remained incarcerated until trial.
This visualization combines the preceding data, displaying both the rate of cash bail and the average amount of cash bail at the same time. The graph shows counties that set cash bail more frequently further to the right along the x-axis. Counties that set larger amounts of cash bail are plotted higher up along the y-axis.
Cash bail and release on recognizance are only two of five types of bail permitted under Pennsylvania law. MDJs may also set nonmonetary bail, unsecured bail, and nominal bail. With nonmonetary bail, the defendant is released but must follow certain nonmonetary conditions, such as enrolling in a substance treatment program or reporting to a pretrial officer. With unsecured bail, the defendant is released but owes a sum of money if they fail to appear in the future or fail to follow conditions of bail. With nominal bail, the defendant is released upon depositing a nominal sum of money such as $1. ROR is the least restrictive type of bail. The defendant is released upon agreeing to appear for future court proceedings and to comply with all bail conditions. If assigned cash bail, the defendant must pay a sum of money in order to be released. Below, we present the distribution of bail types for each county. Hover over a bar to reveal how often each type of bail was set in a specific county.
All individuals are innocent until proven guilty. Pretrial freedom should be the norm and incarceration the exception. Unfortunately, the data reveals that MDJs all too often use cash bail as a mechanism to keep people in jail.