Stories from Philadelphia’s broken bail system

On March 12, 2019, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Arnold & Porter filed a lawsuit against bail judges in Philadelphia who regularly violate their own rules when setting bail.

When these bail judges don’t follow the rules, bad things happen. People are being locked up for days, weeks, and months in Philadelphia’s county jail before they ever have their day in court simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project.

Also included as co-plaintiffs are a number of individuals incarcerated in Philadelphia’s county jail because they cannot afford their bail (as of the filing of the lawsuit).

These are their stories.

M.W. is 18 years old and has worked for a local remodeling company since he was 16, which helps cover the bills at home where he lives with his mother and younger siblings.

At a bail hearing following his March 6 arrest, the teleconference audio was not working, and M.W. could not hear most of what his bail judge said. The bail judge never asked whether M.W. could afford cash bail of any amount, finally setting bail at $7,500.

Not being able to afford the $760 required to secure his release, M.W. remains incarcerated, worried that he has lost his job and concerned about the amount of stress his absence is having on his mother and his family.


P.R. was arrested on March 4. At his hearing, the bail judge never asked whether P.R. had the means to afford cash bail before setting bail at $10,000.

P.R. works a seasonal job for an asphalt and concrete company but has not worked since December due to the winter weather. Because of this pause in his income, P.R. does not have the financial means to pay $1,010 required to secure his release.

P.R. is worried that he will still be in jail when his seasonal work resumes. If he is still incarcerated at that time, he will likely lose his job. He is also worried about whether or not he will lose his apartment while in jail without the ability to pay rent.


J.H. has been working for a moving company for the past two years. A devoted family man, J.H. is worried that his fiancé will not be able to pay rent without his income. J.H. also takes his niece and nephew to school on days when his sister has to work.

Without his help while he remains incarcerated, J.H.’s family is struggling to get by.

At his bail hearing, the judge did not ask J.H. whether he could afford cash bail before setting bail at $150,000.

J.H. sits in jail at the time of this writing, unable to pay to secure his release.


“G.T.” was arrested in Philadelphia on March 4, 2019. Fifty-two years old and suffering from chronic pain from a 2014 injury, G.T. is a recipient of food stamps and was living in a car with all of his possessions in the weeks before he was arrested, as he sought an affordable apartment.

At his bail hearing, despite stating that he was currently unemployed and homeless, the judge set G.T.’s bail at $250,000, meaning G.T. would have to come up with $25,010 to secure his release until his trial.

G.T. is worried that his car, full of his possessions and parked on a public street, will not be there when he finally is released. He’s at risk of missing scheduled doctor’s appointments to treat his chronic pain. He’s sure that the leads on apartments will have evaporated. Worst of all, G.T.’s mother is dying of cancer. Everyday that he spends languishing in jail before he’s ever had his day in court is less time that he might spend with his mother.


“K.B.” is a 27-year-old mother of two who was recently arrested in Philadelphia. Despite making clear that she is not currently working and has no other source of income, the judge set K.B.’s bail at $10,000.

The judge never asked K.B. whether she could afford the $1,010 necessary to secure her release. K.B. remains separated from her children, who are five and nine.

K.B. has no idea how long she will be separated from her children before she has her day in court.


Z.L. was arrested on February 26. Just 16 years old, Z.L. was charged as an adult, and his bail set at $300,000. At his bail hearing, it was clear that Z.L. could not hear anything that was said by the bail judge or anyone else, as he tried to put his ear closer to the videoconferencing screen, to no avail.

Z.L. and his family do not have the $30,010 needed to secure his release, and as a result, Z.L. remains incarcerated in adult jail.

A football and basketball player at his high school, Z.L. was starting to look at colleges and was planning to apply to Penn State at the time of his arrest.


According to the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure, using bail as a tool to incarcerate an individual before their day in court is prohibited. Further, judges are obligated to ask if an individual can afford to bail themselves out and to consider the ability to pay when setting bail. In other words: it’s against the rules to lock up someone pretrial simply because they are poor.

But in Philadelphia, as the stories above illustrate, that’s exactly what is happening.

The lawsuit filed on March 12 asks the state Supreme Court to force bail judges to follow their own rules.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania will continue to fight pretrial detention and the abuse of cash bail in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania as part of our Campaign for Smart Justice. Learn more at aclupa.org/PhillyBail.

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