Economic Impacts of Cash Bail on the City of Philadelphia

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Why should the City of Philadelphia be concerned about this issue? 

The City of Philadelphia, by eliminating the cash bail system, could save the city over $75 million annually and provide a viable alternative to jail for a significant number of those arrested in Philadelphia in a given year. Since 2015, Philadelphia jail populations have declined almost 20 percent, from 8,301 in January 2015 to 6,820 in June 2017.  This is the lowest population since 1999.  Much of this decline can be attributed to the implementation of various MacArthur Initiatives launched by the City since 2015. Notwithstanding, of the nearly 6,700 men and women still incarcerated in Philadelphia, three in every ten are held pre-trial because they cannot afford the cash bail. Of those, one in three are held on less than $5,000, of which the City will ultimately retain only $1,500. According to Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Research Initiative, more than half remain for longer than 30 days. Sometimes exceeding 180 days, the direct costs of incarceration can exceed $20,700 for a single bed. 

Findings

Cash bail can be reduced or eliminated at a substantial cost savings to the City of Philadelphia. Major cities across the U.S. are looking at innovative ways to manage pretrial defendants, balancing the need to ensure justice is served and maintaining public safety, while evaluating the long-term impacts of incarceration and correction of the offender. Research has found current systems can cause more damage on the incarcerated and their families than benefit, whereas alternatives may be just as effective, yet provide better futures for those in the criminal justice system.
This report examines the economic implications of the cash bail system by comparing both the direct and indirect costs of incarceration against cash bail alternatives. This report examines cost implications, underscoring the problem's severity and need for reform. This report has found:

  • The population of Philadelphia jails has declined nearly 20 percent since January 2015 from 8,200 to 6,820.
  • Of the 6,820 inmates in Philadelphia jails, 64 percent are held pretrial.
  • Of the 4,359 total offenders held pretrial in Philadelphia jails, nearly 33 percent are held because they cannot afford cash bail. One in three could be released on less than $5,000.
  • The direct operational cost of Philadelphia jails for one bed-day is estimated at $115; lost opportunity costs near $159 per day; including larger secondary economic costs, one bed-day can equal between $221 and $531.
  • The average Philadelphia defendant spends 25 days in jail pretrial before posting bail. 
  • One in every two defendants remains incarcerated pretrial. 
  • Average posted cash bail in 2016 is nearly three times the average bail posted in 2010. 
  • Over $20 million in direct costs can be saved each year by eliminating cash bail for those who cannot otherwise afford to pay. 
  • The net economic benefit of being released pre-trial has been estimated between $37,031 and $40,048 per inmate. 

Recommendations

  • The City of Philadelphia should move via the District Attorney's Office to dismantle the current cash bail system and migrate to programs similar to those employed by New Jersey and Washington D.C.
  • For low-risk offenders, employ measures of monitoring ranging from low oversight and reminders to higher supervision including electronic monitoring.  
  • Citations should be employed in lieu of arrests, where achievable. 
  • As the inmate population of Philadelphia continues to decrease, it is recommended the City develop strategies for closing the oldest correctional facilities in an effort to reduce overall operational costs.
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