City controller pushes Philly to end cash bail for nonviolent defendants

 Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A study by Philadelphia’s city controller says eliminating cash bail for those accused of low-level crimes would save the city tens of millions of dollars.

Many people end up being held in jail until their trial because they can’t post bail, said City Controller Alan Butkovitz Wednesday. Allowing low-risk, nonviolent defendants to await trial outside prison could save $75 million a year, he said.

“When you consider the cost of housing somebody in a prison, it amounts to about $160 a day for people who have not committed violent crimes and cannot raise the cash to make a low amount of bail,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Making sure defendants appear in court is not as complicated as holding them for trial, Butkovitz said.

“By sending people messages on their iPhones and hounding them into court, just reminding them is having a greater impact than holding their money over their head — particularly when the people who are incarcerated don’t have the money,” he said.

In addition to being expensive for the city, there is an expense for the accused.

“It’s extremely disruptive to people at the bottom of the economic scale,” Butkovitz said. “They miss work for the time they are incarcerated, probably lose their jobs.”

New Jersey ended its cash-bail system this year; now it attempts to assess who can be released safely while waiting for trial. But the change is being challenged in court.

Philadelphia has also been looking at alternatives to relieve crowding in city jails.

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