by Dale Chappell
In Franklin County, Pennsylvania, a rural area with about 154,000 residents, high bail amounts are forcing people who can’t afford to purchase their freedom to plead guilty just to get out of jail for what are typically small-time misdemeanors.
Take, for example, the case of Tiana Lescalleet, who was arrested in 2016 on misdemeanor charges for receiving stolen property (her mother’s jewelry) and possession of drugs. Though she had no criminal record, Franklin Magisterial Judge Glenn Manns set Lescalleet’s bail at $75,000 and, when she couldn’t pay, sent her to the county jail. Lescalleet then had two options: plead guilty to the low-level charges to get released or stay in jail and fight the charges. Thirty-one days later, she pleaded guilty and was released.
On any given day, about 500,000 people like Lescalleet sit in county jails because they can’t pay bail. Researchers have found that more than half the people required to pay bail were unable to do so. This means a loss of jobs, housing, and a higher likelihood of them committing a new crime after release. But it also means that they are often forced to plead guilty just so they can get released and try to salvage their lives.
Researchers also found that people who could afford to pay bail were almost 25 percent less likely to be found guilty or plead guilty. And those people were more likely to regain employment after posting bail.
High bail and detention in Franklin County cost its taxpayers around $13 million a year over the last 10 years. The average cost for the county to house a prisoner who can’t afford to pay bail is $71 a day. The jail has just over 300 beds, costing taxpayers around $21,000 a day to house its prisoners. That’s a big hit for a county where more than a quarter of its residents earn less than $35,000 a year.
“We’ve created a machinery that churns out low-level convictions based not on individual guilt or culpability, but on an individual’s ability to pay,” said Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. She’s the author of Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal.
Natapoff describes the high bail system as the “criminalization of poverty” and says it has created “a now infamous phenomena of people pleading guilty merely to get out of jail.”
Dave Keller, chairperson of the Franklin County Commissioners, acknowledged that the county’s bail amounts are higher than other counties but does not believe that it has anything to do with the rise in the jail’s population. Instead, he attributed longer jail sentences for that increase. He did say that the county is looking into software that would help evaluate the role bail plays in the jail’s population growth.
“The heart of reform, the heart of the change, would require the misdemeanor system to stop criminalizing poverty,” Natapoff said. Officials must “stop conditioning incarceration and punishment on an individual’s ability to pay.”
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