Philadelphia DA drops cash bail for 'low-level' crimes

Philadelphia's top prosecutor said Wednesday his office will stop jailing people who cannot afford to pay cash bail in minor criminal cases, affirming the commitment of the country's fifth-largest city to a national movement that argues the practice targets poor Americans.

District Attorney Larry Krasner said his decision to instruct city prosecutors not to seek a bail payment in a number of misdemeanor and non-violent felony crimes will correct a criminal justice system that discriminates against African-Americans, Latinos and poor people.

"There is absolutely no reason why someone who will show up for court, is not a risk of flight, is not a threat to their neighbors and community should sit in jail for days or weeks or months or years because they can't post a small amount of bail," said Krasner, a civil rights lawyer who ran on a liberal platform last year opposing mass incarceration. "We do not imprison the poor in the United States for the so called crime of poverty."

The district attorney's new policy aligns with years of ongoing criminal justice reforms in Philadelphia that were boosted by a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Since 2015, officials said the city's jail population has dropped by nearly 24 percent to 6,177 people after a series of measures including diversion programs, and issuing tickets instead of arresting people for offenses such as minor marijuana possession. Still, about one-in-five people in city jails are being held on cash bail, officials said.

"Bail is a thousand-year-old proposition from medieval times. Anything 1,000 years old probably could stand a tune up, and possibly even a real overhaul," said Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., who co-chaired a committee on reforming the city's criminal justice system.

The move away from cash bail has gained traction in a handful of jurisdictions with the support of judges, politicians, activists and prosecutors in places such as New Mexico, California, and New York, but it has also run into legal challenges from the bail bond industry.

New Jersey last year all but eliminated cash bail as part of a legislative overhaul of its criminal justice system and has since reported a 20 percent decrease in the number of jailed people awaiting trial. Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey director of the Drug Policy Alliance who testified before the Philadelphia city council criminal justice reform committee before it passed a symbolic measure to end cash bail, described the reforms in her state as a "sea change."

"Nobody can argue with the injustice of keeping people in jail just because they're poor," said Scotti.