By JOHN LESLIE
At the beginning of February, the Philadelphia city council passed a resolution appealing to the Pennsylvania legislature to reform the bail system in the commonwealth. In the current set-up, nonviolent and low-risk offenders are often jailed while awaiting trial because they lack the resources to make even the most modest bail.
Larry Krasner, the new Philadelphia District Attorney, campaigned on questions of criminal justice reform. Since taking office, he has backtracked on some issues, such as opposition to the death penalty, but he appears to be maintaining his support for cash bail reform. It remains to be seen whether a state legislature that is dominated by right-wing forces will enact any reforms.
A New Jersey reform, which practically eliminated cash bail, took effect at the beginning of 2017. A 2013 study showed that 73 percent of the state’s 13,000 inmates in local jails were not convicted of any crime and were awaiting trial in jail. Of these almost 40 percent were eligible for bail but unable to afford even a low cash bail.
Sixty percent of the more than 600,000 prisoners serving time in local jails in the United States have not been convicted of a crime. They are awaiting trial and are not able to make bail because of poverty. This is on top of the more than 2.3 million prisoners in state and federal prisons and the 4,933,667 adults either on probation or parole. In 2017, more than 840,000 people were on parole. More than 7 million adults are under some form of incarceration or correctional control (prison, jail, probation. or parole) in the U.S. There were an additional 70,792 youth in “juvenile detention” in 2010.
Detention while awaiting trial exacts a heavy toll on prisoners and their families. Incarceration can lead to loss of jobs, homelessness, and the loss of children into the foster care system. Sixty percent of the 96,000 women in jails were not convicted of any crime. Prisoners are disproportionately Black, Latino, and poor. Racism is an essential element of the mass incarceration regime.
The Philadelphia County jail has cut the number of prisoners awaiting trial in recent years. Of the approximately 6700 prisoners, about 30 percent are awaiting trial. This is down from 57 percent a few years ago. The number is still too high. There is no reason to hold nonviolent offenders due to poverty or lack or resources.
The fight for bail reform is part of the broader struggle against mass incarceration. Millions are caught up in a system that continues to affect them after their release. Former prisoners have a harder time finding employment and, in many cases lose their right to vote. More than 4 million ex-prisoners cannot vote. Again, the statistics reveal a disproportionate number of African Americans are impacted. Black males account for 35 percent of those deemed ineligible to vote because of past criminal offenses.
A mass social movement is needed to put an end to the prison industrial complex and to end the racial disparities in the criminal injustice system. This struggle must be linked to broader struggles for jobs, education, and to preserve the social safety net. We must demand jobs for all, including ex-prisoners, at union wages and benefits. Ultimately, the end to this sort of injustice can’t come under a system based on inequality, racism, and exploitation. Only a socialist reconstruction of society, in which workers and the oppressed control the state and economy, can put an end to this travesty.
Photo: Marvin Fong / The Plain Dealer