Pennsylvania’s largest court system, the First Judicial District, has revoked a controversial policy that allowed the court to retain nearly one-third of a defendant’s cash bail deposit after their case was fully resolved.
On Wednesday, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper issued an order amending its rules to say that, if a defendant is compliant with the bail conditions, bail deposits should be returned in full after a criminal case has been resolved. The previous policy allowed the court to retain 30 percent of a defendant’s cash bail after a case was disposed, and said that any funds that were not claimed with 180 days would be deemed forfeit to the court.
In the one-page order issued Wednesday, Woods-Skipper cited the court’s work with Philadelphia City Council’s Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reform and its work helping to manage a multimillion-dollar MacArthur Foundation grant. The change, the order said, was made based on a best practices review by the FJD and the Criminal Justice Advisory Board.
“The court concludes that the interests of justice would be best served if the entire amount of cash bail deposited to secure the defendant’s release were to be refunded in those cases where the defendant fully complied with the principal purpose of bail,” Woods-Skipper said.
The new rule does allow the court to designate “a minimum sum of money” that can be retained if the defendant does not appear at all the required hearings. A comment to the rule says the retention figure is 30 percent of the deposited amount or 3 percent of the total amount of bail, but the maximum amount of retained money should not exceed $1,500.
The order said it takes effect immediately.
According to the Philadelphia Weekly article, bail fees put $2.9 million into the city’s general fund for 2018. The article also noted that talks have been in place about reversing the court’s bail retention practices, and the 2019 budget, which passed in June, accounted for the dip in revenue.
In an email Wednesday, Woods-Skipper said the changes have been in the works since 2016, and that the court does not retain any of the fees, but rather they are paid in full to the city.
“The city has represented that the loss of this revenue will not adversely impact the budget of criminal justice entities funded by the city, including the court,” Woods-Skipper said in an email Wednesday.
Woods-Skipper said that, along with alleviating the negative financial impacts, the court also expects that the change may increase the appearance rate of defendants, which will also expedite the disposition of the underlying charges.