If we are proud of our heritage of opposition to slavery, we have no choice but to take a stand on mass incarceration. Last spring Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting passed a minute in opposition to mass incarceration. As one step in bringing that minute to life, to test the role of outside observers in the effort to end cash bail, several members of our meeting recently ventured through a metal detector and down to the small basement room in Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center where bail hearings take place. There we found the court players separated by a glass wall from a few benches for observers. People who have been arrested appear via a video screen from where they are being held at different police districts around the city.
Many of the individual hearings take less than a minute. The bail commissioner, or magistrate, verifies the person’s name, reads the charges, lets them know their court date and warns that if they don’t show up a warrant will be issued for their arrest. Then comes the question of bail. Sometimes this is done with minimal consultation. With a simple DUI or drug possession case, the person is often now released on their own recognizance—signing for bail without having to pay anything. Sometimes the Commissioner wants more information and enquires about previous arrests or detainers (requests that a person be held in relation to another charge). Sometimes it’s more complex. The DA’s representative suggests a bail amount, the Public Defender counters. The Commissioner may ask for their reasoning. Then s/he decides, announces the amount of the bail, and the next person in line is brought in.
We learned from a fellow observer at the second session that the hearings are held every four hours, 24 hours a day, with different court personnel rotating in and out. With such a steep learning curve, all we could do at first was try to follow along. By the end of the afternoon, however, we had gotten our bearings and could start to reflect on the nature of what we were witnessing.
Everyone was focused on “just the facts”, as the conveyor belt on their assembly-line job brought an endless stream of human misery—oppression, straitened circumstances, addiction, poor judgment. The one sign of shared humanity we witnessed was with a veteran charged with DUI and damage of another vehicle. The Commissioner probed to learn that he had served in Afghanistan, made a point of telling him about court programs for veterans, and thanked him for his service.
It was hard to watch people attempting to dispense justice in the midst of such an unjust system. There was no uniform treatment here. The Commissioner and DA’s rep in the second session were both much more punitive than those in the first. At one point, the latter recommended a bail of $300,000! That the Commissioner came down to $50,000 was probably of scant comfort to the guy on the screen. The $5000 required up front was clearly beyond his reach or the reach of anybody else we saw that day. Even the challenge of finding $500 for bail of $5000 would keep most of these folks in jail or send them straight to the bail bondsmen and their extortionate rates.
Did any of the thirty or forty people we observed need to be behind bars before their arraignment? Maybe the guy who had missed 23 of his last 26 court appearances. Possibly the two who had threatened family members. If so, then why not just say that those few need to stay in jail, rather than using a bail system that punishes the poor and lets the rich buy their way out? Looking at the bigger picture, the people who are seriously endangering us and eroding the quality of life in our country have fat wallets, work in high places and would never be caught by this system.
We now carry the weight of what we witnessed. How can those of us who have some protection from this part of our penal system take in its enormity? How can we face squarely the incredible injustice and pain that permeate it, and acknowledge how we have acquiesced to its existence? In a situation where silence implies consent, what needs to happen for us to speak out?