Legislation passed in Pa. House would “virtually destroy” community bail funds | Social Justice | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Legislation passed in Pa. House would “virtually destroy” community bail funds

Legislation passed in Pa. House would “virtually destroy” community bail funds
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
More than twenty cars blocked Second Avenue outside of the Allegheny County Jail as people protested conditions for Black women, calling for the release of inmates and ending the use of cash bail on Tue., May 12, 2020.
Beginning last year, especially coinciding with the numerous arrests of Black Lives Matter protesters across the country, community bail funds started to proliferate, as a way to help people charged avoid jail time. Cash bail is often assigned to people charged, but not convicted of crimes, and those who can’t make bail who are confined to jails.

Community bail funds, like Bukit Bail Fund in Pittsburgh, raised money from the public, and the bail funds would then match bails for those who needed it. Nyssa Taylor of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania says community bail funds are “really emerging as safety valves for a lot of people.” There are currently eight community bail funds operating in Pennsylvania, from Philadelphia to Lancaster to Harrisburg to Montgomery County.

But a bill that is working its way through the Pennsylvania House would put those bail funds in jeopardy. House Bill 2046 would require community bail funds to register as a licensed bail bondsman. This bill recently passed through committee on a party line vote with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing. On Nov. 16, it passed the House on a 111-88 vote.

Taylor says if passed by the state Senate and then signed into law, it would basically eliminate all of the state’s community bail funds.

“It would require community bail funds to go through all these licensing that would virtually destroy all of them,” says Taylor.

State Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-North Side) spoke on the floor of the House in opposition to this bill. She called HB 2046 a “solution in search of a problem” and noted that Republicans in committee said they didn’t find any problems with community bail funds.

“There is nothing they are trying to fix. And we are rocketing this through the legislature,” says Kinkead. This is a giveaway to the bail bond industry, basically. Tell me the last time a bill went from introduction to final passage in 12 days.”

The vote fell on mostly partisan lines, with Republicans almost universally in support and Democrats almost universally in opposition. Two Republicans opposed the bill and two Democrats supported it, including Allegheny County state Rep. Tony DeLuca (D-Penn Hills).

Kinkead says that “cash bail doesn’t actually set out what it is sought to accomplish, and it just destroys people's families and lives.” She isn’t sure what the state Senate will do with the bill, but if HB 2046 makes it through that chamber, she hopes Gov. Tom Wolf (D-York) will veto it.

HB 2046 would change the definition of bail bondsman in Pennsylvania from “a person who engages in the business of giving bail as a surety for compensation” to “a professional bondsman or a surety bondsman.” It would require any entity that provides bail without earning monetary compensation more than three times in a 30-day window to be licensed with the state.

Community bail funds are typically nonprofit and volunteer-driven charitable organizations that raise money to post monetary bail for people detained before their trials, typically to those who cannot afford to post bail.

If passed, these funds must get licensed by paying $125 in fees to apply, receive a credit check and a criminal background check, and require them to maintain a “suitable place of business in a fixed location,” aka a brick and mortar location.

Taylor says community bail funds have become a community resource, and have led efforts to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to bail people out on holidays like Mother’s Day. She says people not being able to afford bail is an urban issue, a suburban issue, and a rural issue that persists all over the commonwealth.

Cash bail is not just assigned to people accused of serious crimes. In the summer of 2020, cash bail was often assigned to Black Lives Matter protesters, who were largely charged with misdemeanors like disorderly conduct or failure to disperse. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 32 protesters were ordered to pay 10% of a cash amount between $1,000 and $5,000, and eight were required to pay 10% of $10,000, in connection to arrests in summer 2020.

Taylor says it's not just community bail funds that could be impacted by this bill. The law, if passed, would apply to anyone providing bail who isn’t licensed. She says if a mother needed to provide bail for her four children, she would only be allowed to post bail for three of them within a 30-day window.

And some studies show that cash bail has little to no effect on court appearance rates or public safety. Academics at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed Philadelphia data in 2018, and showed that failure-to-appear rates and arrests didn’t increase after cash bail was not assigned.

According to a report from the Abolitionist Law Center that tracked court reports from May 11, 2020 through June 8, 2020, just nine zip codes with a disproportionate Black population accounted for 38% of the dollar value of all monetary bail issued in Allegheny County over that period. Only about 13% of Allegheny County residents are Black.

Both Kinkead and Taylor are perplexed as to where this bill came from. Kinkead says it had no co-sponsor memorandum, where legislators can provide support before introduction. Taylor suspects it is being pushed by the bail bonds industry.

According to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, the bill’s Republican backers say community bail funds exist in a loophole in state law and should be registered and regulated in some way. State Rep. Kate Klunk (R-York) introduced HB 2046 and defended the bill.

“They’re essentially holding themselves out to be a bail bondsman. They just happen to be a nonprofit agency,” Klunk told the Capital-Star. “So they should be required to have the insurance and go through those checks to make sure that everything is above board.”

She didn’t disclose who was lobbying for this bill, but the Capital-Star reported the likely advocate was Nick Wachinski, a registered lobbyist who has served as head of a bail bonds industry group, who currently has at least four bail bonds clients.

Since 2019, Wachinski has given $16,750 to House Republicans and $20,250 to Senate Republicans in campaign donations.

“Community bail funds are a charity, like a soup kitchen or a shelter. It is abhorrent that state lawmakers would pass legislation that could end up shuttering these organizations,” said ACLU of PA director Reggie Shuford in a press release. “Pretrial detention can ruin lives, and it is often only the work of community bail funds that prevents people who cannot afford bail from having their lives ruined before they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, particularly Black and brown people. This bill should be dead on arrival in the state Senate.”

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