A bill passed by the Pennsylvania House this week could change how community bail funds work and could force some of them to close. It would require anyone posting bail for more than three people in the course of 30 days to be a licensed professional surety.
Most bail funds operate as non-profit organizations that collect donations from community members to release a person from jail before their trial. Pennsylvania has eight surety funds statewide.
An increase in donations to these funds has occurred during protests against police brutality across the country in 2020. For months, bail funds were heavily focused on paying bail for protesters caught in mass arrests that summer.
Bail funds serve as an alternative to bond companies, which charge an incarcerated person a non-refundable fee in exchange for securing bail in court, allowing the incarcerated person to be free while awaiting trial.
When an individual returns for their legal proceedings, the surety company retains those fees for profit.
Bail funds cover the costs without charging a fee and often provide other services, such as a trip to court, to ensure the person meets their bond obligations. When an individual appears in court, the fund receives that money to use for the next person.
Pennsylvania Bail Funds are speaking out against the bill, saying it would affect not only their work, but also the work of other community groups and churches working to help incarcerated people gain bail.
“It attacks the concept of communities that can come together,” said Alex Domingos, board member of the Dauphin County Bail Fund. “Paying a bond is already such an onerous process with so many regulations. We are concerned that any additional regulations or barriers…will result in more people being incarcerated before trial.
“Harder to bail people out”
House Bill 2046 holds surety funds with the same requirements as any professional state guarantor.
“It would make it harder to bail people out,” said Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy adviser for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
Bail fund organizers point out that the bill would also require churches and other community groups to meet the same professional standards.
“It’s going to stop religious groups or families pooling resources to put together that money order or cashier’s check for an extremely high bond,” said Milica Bogetic, organizer of the Bukit Bail Fund of Pittsburgh. “It’s not just about bail funds. It’s more about [how the bill] restricts the freedom to do so.
Bail funds or groups that regularly bail out community members should meet the following requirements.
- Obtain a license from the state Department of Insurance, which requires a $125 application fee and approval from the local district attorney
- Pass a criminal background check
- Pass a credit history check
- Maintain an office in the county in which a bail fund operates
This last requirement would complicate how surety funds work together and serve residents of neighboring counties. Four of Pennsylvania’s eight surety funds are in the Philadelphia area. The other four are in Allegheny, Dauphin, Lancaster and Montgomery counties.
Pittsburgh’s Bukit Bail Fund frequently serves those incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail, Bogetic said, but they also work with people in neighboring counties.
“We very regularly receive requests from Butler, Mercer [and from] Indiana [counties],” she said.
Requiring band members to pass a criminal background check would prevent incarcerated elders from arranging bail funds. Many use their experience with the justice system once they are free, according to Taylor.
This is “precisely why they become activists and choose to help,” she said. “Requiring them to have a clean criminal record…would prevent them from helping people.”
A partisan vote
The bill swept through the House, passing mostly along party lines two weeks after it was introduced by State Rep. Kate Klunk (R-York). Klunk declined multiple interview requests from WESA on the legislation.
At a House Judiciary Committee meeting last week, state Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny) asked Klunk for examples of bail funds releasing people who commit crimes while they were out on bail or those who refused to show up for their court date.
“It could happen. I don’t have a specific example to give you in mind,” Klunk replied. “You could definitely see someone jumping. You might see another crime being committed.
Klunk admitted that bail funds can operate altruistically, but she argued that without a license they could not be held responsible for releasing someone who committed another crime while out on bail. bail.
“Because this person doesn’t have that professional experience in this area, it could potentially create problems, jeopardize public safety and security in our communities,” she said.
During the hearing, Klunk and other supporters of the bill did not cite data showing that bail funds are responsible for releasing repeat offenders.
“There were no known instances where community bail funds had a problem or [something] it would have caused this sudden need to professionalize community bail funds,” Kinkead said. “It’s a solution in search of a problem.”
During the same committee hearing, state Rep. Paul Schemel (R-Franklin) suggested that the bill also protect bail funds from being used by drug cartels.
“It’s a good solution to a problem,” he said.
Kinkead argued that cartel members are often held on bonds too high for community bail funds to reach.
Bail fund advocates wonder if the surety industry itself is behind the bill.
“I think that [we’re] see big business and greed…use this as a way to put [bail funds] bankrupt,” Taylor said. “The surety industry is losing money to surety funds.”
Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the bill would disproportionately harm people of color.
“Pretrial detention can ruin lives, and it’s often just the work of community bail funds that keeps people who can’t pay bail from having their lives ruined before they’re convicted of a crime. crime, especially black and brown people,” Shuford said. .
The bill is now going to the State Senate for consideration.
A spokesman for the Wolf administration said the governor opposes the legislation “in its current form.”
“[The bill] would create barriers for community organizations that provide support to Pennsylvanians who cannot afford cash bail, which is itself regressive and disproportionately impacts minority populations,” the spokesperson said.