A former Lancaster County public defender is hoping to reduce the number of people held in pretrial detention.
Michelle Akritas, an attorney who recently left the Lancaster County Public Defender’s office after five years of service, started a nonprofit bail fund this month aimed at combating the inequity she sees in the system.
“I think it’s part and parcel with society moving forward from mass incarceration,” she said
Akritas said that when she left the public defender’s office last year and was thinking about what to do next in her career, the topic of a bail fund kept coming up in her conversations.
Bail is the process of releasing an accused person prior to trial in exchange for some security that the person will return to the court for future hearings. An amount of money set by the judge is typically the security used to ensure a defendant’s return, with that money being forfeited if a defendant does not show up.
An individual who is unable to post bail is held in jail prior to facing a hearing. A bail fund works by using funds, typically raised through donations, to post bail for those who cannot do so.
In Lancaster County as of the end of May, 66% of the 665 people being held at Lancaster County Prison were being held there pretrial, according to Warden Cheryl Steberger, although it is unclear how many of those are there because they cannot pay their bail amounts.
Questioning the effectiveness
Akritas and other bail reform advocates question the effectiveness of using monetary bail as a way to ensure a defendant shows up to court. She pointed to data from The Bail Project, a national nonprofit, that shows a nearly 90% return rate for people for whom they post bail.
According to a study on court appearances by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 75% of defendants show up for all of their court hearings.
“So that’s really not a (good) justification,” Akritas said. “It’s undisputable that the cash bail system does end up being a tax on the poor.”
Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams said she is wary of the idea of a bail fund because she is concerned those administering it might not be aware of all the factors in a case, such as a suspect’s prior criminal history and the details of the alleged crime.
Adams said that while setting bail is a function of the judiciary and not her office, she does think the system is functioning well here and there are methods in place for reevaluating bail when necessary.
Bail can be adjusted
President Judge David Ashworth said that there are several points during a criminal case in which a person’s bail can be adjusted if a judge feels it is unfair. Ashworth said he met with Akritas and her partners at the Central Pennsylvania Equity Project and he and they don’t see eye to eye on what Lancaster’s bail data shows and how it should be viewed.
“As I explained to them, I think it is inappropriate to apply what is going on nationally to the system here in Lancaster,” he said.
The Central Pennsylvania Equity Project recently presented what it said was data showing inequity in Lancaster County’s bail system at a prison board meeting. But Ashworth said the process of setting bail is specific to the facts of each defendant and crime, and so looking at a dataset which shows a person’s alleged crime, prior criminal history score and bail amount is not a good method for evaluating the system.
He said that what should be done, and is being done, by court administrators and judges is to look at cases individually, and to address specific situations when there is a problem with the amount of bail that was set.
Ashworth also said that although he did not have exact figures, very few of the pretrial detainees at Lancaster County Prison are there because they cannot pay bail.
Fund in its infancy stage
Akritas said the Lancaster Bail Fund is currently in its infancy stage. She is applying to be a project of the Alliance for Global Justice — an organization that also sponsors a Pittsburgh-based bail fund — which would enable her to collect donations under their 501c(3) designation while acquiring her own.
She is also hoping to be part of this year’s Extraordinary Give community fundraising event in November.
“Right now we’re just building community relationships,” She said. “The main goal is not to just raise a bunch of money and start bailing people out, we are going to try to work together in the community to end pretrial incarceration.”
As of Wednesday, the fund had raised close to $2,000 of its $50,000 goal on donorbox.org, but the fund has not started posting bail yet. Akritas said that at a meeting next week she and other community advocates expect to discuss how the fund could be used. And she said she is open to all ideas.
“So if anyone has ideas of input on how they think this money could be used, that’s going to be something I want more community input on,” she said,
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated The Lancaster Bail Funds association with the Alliance for Global Justice. The fund is currently applying to be a project of the fund.