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Ditching cash bail would save city millions, Butkovitz says

Controller throws support behind growing push for reform.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz (Provided)

Law enforcement agencies from Washington, D.C., and New Jersey to California are currently exploring the possibility of eliminating the cash bail system, and it has been proposed in Philly by Democratic candidate for DA Larry Krasner.

Now Controller Alan Butkovitz has come out in favor of the reform, saying Wednesday it could save Philadelphia some $75 million.

“It costs the city tens of millions of dollars every year to house individuals waiting for trials involving vandalism, fraud and drug abuse,” said Butkovitz. “This can cause more damage on the incarcerated and their families and places a financial strain on the justice system. … Eliminating the direct costs alone would allow Philadelphia to focus more of its resources on reducing recidivism and re-entry programs."

Reform advocates nationwide have been championing for years the proposal of ending cash bail, which many argue penalizes the poor and makes defendants serve a sentence before they are convicted. In a non-cash bail system, a judge decides whether or not to detain a defendant, based on whether they pose a threat to public safety and are a flight risk.

According to Butkovitz, of the roughly 4,359 inmates detained pretrial in Philly jails, about 33 percent are being held on cash bail they cannot afford. One-third of those inmates are being held on bail of less than $5,000.

Cash bail exists to ensure defendants will return to court to face trial, but studies show many defendants will return to court even when not detained.

Krasner, a longtime defense and civil rights attorney who is running against Republican candidate for DA Beth Grossman in November, made opposition to cash bail central to his campaign. "Stop lighting money on fire," he previously said of the idea. "Don't throw the homeless man who stole food in jail for a year and a half."

Butkovitz said ending the whole system would shrink the city's prison population by 1,800, from 6,500 to below 4,700, which would let the city close the House of Corrections and the Detention Center, which together cost the city $75 million a year to operate and maintain.

He also argued that defendants cost themselves and the city $351 a day. But if released to the community, they could continue working. Linking defendants with city jobs would help grow the economy, he said, noting that his "study indicates putting more than 1,440 low-risk offenders back to work in construction and service industries in Philadelphia, supporting city-build initiatives, would support 900 additional jobs and produce nearly $3.8 million in additional economic impact within the city."

It's not a new idea to the city government. A group of experts collaboratively working among law enforcement agencies has been studying how to save money by helping inmates stay out of jail thanks to a MacArthur grant since 2016. As of March 2017, they'd reported a 30 percent drop in the city's jail population.

Representatives of Philly's grant-funded Safety and Justice Challenge said Butkovitz was right on policy but had some facts mixed up.

"We also agree that there are issues with a system based on money bail, and that’s why we’ve been engaged in an intensive reform effort with our partners across the criminal justice system for over two years, an effort that has already led to a nearly 20 percent reduction of the prison population," they said. "However, there are numerous inaccuracies in this report - our pretrial population is about 30 percent, not 64 percent, bench warrants total 41,000, rather than 65,000, and our appearance rate is over 95 percent, rather than 70 percent, to name a few."

Butkovitz, who as controller is the city's financial watchdog, will be ending his term in January. He lost the Democratic primary to Rebecca Rhynhart, who will face Republican candidate Mike Tomlinson in November.

But rumors have been swirling around the controller as a possible candidate for mayor to go up against Jim Kenney, in part fueled by his opposition to Kenney's signature soda tax.

Click here to read Butkovitz' full report on cash bail.