Larry Krasner, the career criminal defense and civil rights attorney who took office as Philadelphia's District Attorney in January, announced yesterday that his office will no longer ask local judges to set cash bail for defendants charged with some common crimes. The decision could have a major effect on Philadelphia's pretrial jail population, which remains one of the largest in the country, although it has declined for the last two years.
As announced, the policy applies to a list of 25 specific criminal charges including retail burglary, prostitution, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, resisting arrest, providing false identification to law enforcement, as well as several types of drug and theft offenses. Notably, the list includes a number of crimes classified as felonies by Pennsylvania law, making this policy more expensive than similar bail reforms adopted by local prosecutors in other jurisdictions. The policy announced last month by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., for example, instructed line prosecutors to forgo bail requests only in some misdemeanor cases.
Krasner, who ran for office as a progressive reformer vowing to make the city's notoriously punitive justice system fairer for racial minorities and the poor, has moved faster on reform issues than some other D.A.s who have struck comparable tones. Since taking office in January, Krasner has purged his office of many career prosecutors, announced his support for city-sponsored 'safe injection' sites for intravenous drug users, and declined to prosecute charges of marijuana possession.
This latest move puts Philadelphia further along the road to bail reform than many jurisdictions that have cash-based bail systems. However, the city remains behind places like Washington, D.C. and New Jersey, which have eliminated posted cash bail in nearly all instances. Instead, courts in these jurisdictions make decisions about pretrial release based on individualized assessments of whether an araignee is likely to fail to appear at future court dates or poses a danger to the community, often releasing defendants accused of even violent crimes.
In Philadelphia, the implementation of such a system would require a modification of Pennsylvania law, and as such is beyond the authority of either Krasner or municipal lawmakers to implement. Last month, the Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution calling upon the state legislature in Harrisburg to pass statewide bail reform legislation, but no action has been taken yet.
Nationwide, about 60 percent of all incarcerated Americans are held in pre-trial detention. Many of these inmates remain in jail not because they were denied bail based on public safety concerns, but because they could not afford to pay the amount required to obtain release. Curtailing the use of cash bail does seem to reduce pretrial incarceration over all, so Krasner's decision may well cause Philadelphia's jail population to drop. The D.A. has said he intends to take further steps to continue the effort. To guarantee that incarceration does not result from poverty alone, however, Harrisburg will need to take action.