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October 24, 2019

PITTSBURGH — Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania released a new report entitled Punishing Poverty: Cash Bail in Allegheny County, an analysis of two years of dockets to examine bail practices in Allegheny County. According to the report, while the county has made slight progress over the past year in reducing its reliance on cash bail, cash bail was still set in 28% of initial bail assignments from February through June 2019. Moreover, an extraordinarily high number of people charged with minor offenses were assigned cash bail.

The research also points to trends of Black residents and poor residents being disproportionately assigned cash bail. This has led to a surge in pretrial detention reflected in the population of the Allegheny County Jail: 95% of the growth in the overall jail prisoner population since 2000 was due to the increase in the unconvicted population.

“When a person is assigned cash bail that they cannot afford and ends up in pretrial detention, the consequences are often devastating,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “People can lose their jobs, their housing, their transportation, or worse in just a matter of days before they have ever been convicted of a crime.” 

The report also details significant disparities in how Magisterial District Judges, or magistrates, across Allegheny County approach assigning cash bail. Individual magistrates varied in their rate of cash bail assignments from less than 2% to 57%. Thus, a person’s pretrial liberty depends in large part on which magistrate conducts their preliminary arraignment.

Finally, the analysis revealed the outsized role that bail bondsmen play in Allegheny County. Bail bond companies function as predatory lenders, trapping poor people and vulnerable families in cycles of debt and loss. But between February and June 2019, bail bondsmen were responsible for 75% of all monetary bail postings.

“Elected officials in Allegheny County must work with police and magistrates to develop a consistent protocol for assigning bail that does not effectively criminalize being poor,” said Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel at the ACLU of Pennsylvania and one of the authors of the report. “County officials also have a duty to address the serious racial disparities in who does and does not get cash bail.”

The report concludes with a call for magistrates, police, and the district attorney to commit to ending the use of cash bail in Allegheny County. 

A copy of the report is available at aclupa.org/PunishingPoverty.

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