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How long should a defendant be held if they can't afford bail?

A 25-year-old State College woman is seeking a bail modification because procedures in her case have become complex and time-consuming. The woman, who was charged in connection with a drug-overdose death last year, was originally given straight bail of $150,000, which she could not afford.

Now, her case may be transferred from Centre County to Clinton County but the transfer is being appealed. During the appeal, she could be left in the Centre County Correctional Facility for an additional nine to 14 months before she can even be scheduled for a trial.

In this case, two accomplices are accused of the purchase and transfer of drugs to a 35-year-old woman who was found dead along a road in Ferguson Township in 2016. The purchase and transfer occurred in Lock Haven, which is in Clinton County. However, the case was originally filed in Centre County, where the deceased woman was discovered.

The other accomplice in the case was granted unsecured, rather than straight bail, which means that she did not have to pay any money up front. Instead, she agreed to be held liable for $150,000 if she fails to comply with the conditions of her bail bond. In other words, she was released while the State College woman remains in pre-trial detention. The two are charged with essentially the same crime.

The purpose of bail is not to punish defendants but to ensure they appear at court hearings and at trial. The most important factor, in theory, is whether the defendant constitutes a flight risk. However, the seriousness of the offense and the likelihood of conviction can be taken into account as potentially motivating flight. Bail can be secured by money or by conditional release.

The State College woman's attorney argues that she was cooperative in the investigation. She is undergoing addiction treatment while in jail and has no history of escape. Especially in light of her accomplice's bail, the attorney recommended she be given conditional bail. He recommended that one of the conditions be continuing her addiction treatment.

While pointing out that the offense is a first-degree felony carrying a standard sentence range of 60-78 months, the assistant district attorney agreed with the defense attorney's recommendation of bail with conditions.

It is quite troubling when a defendant is forced to endure a long term of pretrial detention without evidence that they are a flight risk. Although the term of incarceration may be applied toward a later sentence for a guilty person, it deprives an innocent person of their liberty.

Where is the presumption of innocence when a person can be required to spend months or even years behind bars before they have even been tried?

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