HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced Monday that it will hold an investigation into whether the Philadelphia bail system suffers from systemic failures.
Emphasizing that it will not entertain any “attempt to advocate for the abolition of cash bail,” the court said it will appoint Judge John Cleland from the McKean County Court of Common Pleas a special master for the inquiry.
The unsigned order follows an application for original jurisdiction by the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, another nonprofit and 10 prisoners who are proceeding anonymously.
Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Arnold & Porter, the challengers took aim at six bail magistrates they say had failed to carry out their mandatory duties, resulting in “thousands of people who should be released on non-monetary conditions [being] assigned cash bail that they cannot afford.”
“Whether held for five days or five months, defendants who are assigned unaffordable cash bail by respondents suffer severe repercussions, including the loss of jobs, housing, and separation from their children,” they alleged in a March complaint.
Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement Tuesday that his organization is grateful the court has taken on this investigation.
“People who have not been convicted of a crime are sitting in Philadelphia jails only because they are too poor to pay the bail they’ve been assigned,” Shuford said. “The Philadelphia courts have effectively criminalized poverty.”
Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, added in a statement of her own that many being held in Philadelphia’s jails right now have not been proven guilty of a crime.
“Bail hearings in Philadelphia typically last less than three minutes, which is wholly insufficient to inquire into someone’s ability to pay, and the person whose liberty is on the line is not even in the room, as they watch the proceedings by video,” she said. “The bail system in Philadelphia must change.”
Parties in the case will have 90 days to provide evidence. After they have done so, Judge Cleland will submit his recommendation to the court within 60 days.
Nancy Winkelman with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.