We sued Lancaster County judges for setting unconstitutional bail. But the problem doesn’t end in Lancaster.

by Nyssa Taylor

Under the Constitution, a person accused of a crime is presumed innocent, yet, when a judge sets cash bail for a person who can’t afford to pay, they condemn that person to pretrial detention. Pretrial detention causes significant harm to those incarcerated. In addition to being deprived of their freedom, people incarcerated pretrial risk losing their jobs, their homes, their health, and their ability to care for their children and other loved ones each day they remain in jail.

Earlier this month, we filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of individuals held pretrial due to unaffordable cash bail. This lawsuit is the latest piece of a years-long campaign to challenge the misuse of cash bail in Pennsylvania.

We spent time interviewing people who were held pretrial in Lancaster County Prison and, yet again, discovered a pattern of judges breaking the rules and violating the Constitution when assigning cash bail.

For instance, Lancaster Judge Brian Chudzik assigned plaintiff H.C. $100,000 bail. Before his arrest, H.C. worked two part-time jobs and received rental assistance and food stamps. H.C. cannot afford to pay his bail and, as a result, has been incarcerated since March 22. Mr. C has diabetes and has fainted numerous times due to low blood sugar because the jail’s medical staff failed to properly manage his diabetes. Mr. C has lost both his jobs as a result of his incarceration and fears that he will lose his home of 13 years if he is not released soon.

In another case, Judge Edwin Tobin assigned plaintiff C.B., an 18-year-old high school student, $300,000 in straight cash bail, meaning he had to pay the entire amount to be released. Before being incarcerated, C.B. worked two part-time jobs to help support his mother and sister and attended school full time; however, because he cannot afford his bail, he has been in Lancaster County Prison since January 11 and will no longer be able to graduate high school with his class in May.

These are just two out of many horrific stories we heard while visiting the jail. Most hearings were conducted via video chat, lasted only a few minutes, and were not recorded, making it difficult to hold judges accountable without doing the legwork of interviewing individual defendants for their stories.

And, of course, the horror stories don’t end in Lancaster.

In 2017, the ACLU of Pennsylvania set out to collect information from all 67 counties across the commonwealth about how and when judges set cash bail for people who have been charged with a crime but have not yet been convicted.

What we found was a patchwork of available data about cash bail that varied depending on the county; some kept comprehensive records about cash bail, others kept hardly any records at all. We recently released the data we were able to collect in our report Broken Rules: How Pennsylvania Courts Use Cash Bail to Incarcerate People Before Trial.

In 2018 and 2019, we attended more than 2,000 arraignment hearings in Philadelphia’s First Judicial District and uncovered a pattern there of judges assigning people unaffordable cash bail in violation of Pennsylvania rules and the Constitution. Only because we took the time to attend thousands of hearings were we able to uncover this pattern.

Later in 2019, we analyzed docket data about the use of cash bail in Allegheny County. That analysis led to the release of Punishing Poverty: Cash Bail in Allegheny County in October of that year.

As we noted in the conclusion of our report Broken Rules, misuse of cash bail is pervasive in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. But because of huge gaps in tracking and reporting the use of cash bail, challenging such unconstitutional practices often means gathering evidence one case at a time and, in some cases, figuring out where to find that evidence in the first place.

But with the vast majority of incarcerated people in Pennsylvania being held pretrial, their lives unraveling every day spent behind bars, there’s no option but to push forward.

We won’t stop.

Nyssa Taylor is the criminal justice strategic litigation and policy counsel at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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ACLU of Pennsylvania

ACLU of Pennsylvania

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.