ACLU sues Philadelphia court magistrates over bail practices

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and several criminal justice reform groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Philadelphia court magistrates over what they say are unfair bail practices that don’t follow rules and unfairly target poor people of color.

“The system of bail in Philadelphia is clearly quite broken,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, saying it only works for the “wealthiest individuals who can buy their way out of jail.”

The lawsuit was filed with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania as a complaint against six Philadelphia arraignment court magistrates who the ACLU claims routinely violates the high court’s rules. It alleges the magistrates rely too heavily on cash bail and are effectively punishing people for being poor.

The ACLU observed more than 2,000 bail hearings in recent months and found that magistrates “were regularly violating rules intended to prevent the criminalization of poverty,” he said. “Philadelphia must do better.”

The ACLU has filed other lawsuits challenging unfair bail practices in Alabama, Texas, Florida, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, New York and California.

The group described the hearings in Philadelphia as video conferences that typically last about two minutes, where clients don’t get a chance to speak, often can’t hear the proceedings and their financial situation is not taken into consideration, with bail even imposed on people receiving food stamps.

“They’re making decisions about people lives that will cost them their jobs, apartments and custody of their children in the time it takes to brush your teeth,” said Mary Catherine Roper, of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Candace McKinley, an organizer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund which is a party to the suit, described how her group has raised over $300,000 since 2017 to bail out about 100 people who couldn’t afford their bail.

“We’ve had people who have given birth while they were locked up and had their kid taken away from them,” she said. “We had to scramble to post bail so they could show up at family court to try to get their child back.”

Gabe Roberts, the director of communications for the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, said the court can’t comment on pending cases or filings.

A city spokesman said they had not yet reviewed the litigation and so have no comment at this time.

About a year ago, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced his office would no longer seek bail for minor criminal cases.

During an update on the effects of the reform last month, his office announced that 1,750 defendants were released without bail during 2018, with no increase in recidivism.

According to the First Judicial District, defendants’ court-appearance rate in 2018 was the highest it has been in a decade, nearly 97 percent in Common Pleas Court and 87.5 percent in Municipal Court, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported .

Krasner’s office said it didn’t have any comment on the lawsuit at this time.

The problem the ACLU lawsuit is seeking to address is that the magistrates are not following the rules, and in some cases they are setting bail deliberately too high, said Mary Catherine Roper, of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

“That is not anything the DA can fix, that is not something the public defender can fix, that is not something the city administration can fix,” she said. “Honestly, these judges are not following orders and the only authority that can tell them to do that is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.”


This story has been corrected to show suit filed Tuesday, not Thursday.