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$50,000 bail in theft of $363? High cash bail keeps people in jail

Recently, a 61-year-old homeless man decided to scrounge what he could from what seems to have been a vacant, repossessed home in Mapleton. Although breaking into bank-owned properties is certainly inadvisable, it makes a certain sense in the man's situation. After all, the bank will probably discard all the contents.

While the man was searching the home, he found an H&R .22 caliber revolver in a bathroom medicine cabinet. Based on the story in the Centre Daily Times, he apparently reported finding the gun to the police. Unfortunately, he had previously been convicted of felony burglary and is prohibited from possessing firearms, and the police decided that reporting a found gun is the same as possessing one.

Police say the man stole the revolver, worth about $230, along with a trigger block, rem oil, a Kabar knife, a dog leash, a Mossy Oak dog collar, some hair gel and some body wash. These items are valued at $363. A relative later piled on, claiming that the man had also taken some electronics.

He was charged with burglary, theft by unlawful taking, criminal trespassing and unlawful possession of a firearm.

A Huntingdon County judge set the man's bail at $50,000 or a 10 percent bond. Unsurprisingly, the homeless man was unable to make that bail and was sent to jail.

Does it make sense to set bail at a level far too high for a defendant to afford? Bail isn't meant to be punitive; it comes long before the defendant is convicted of a crime. Its main purposes are to ensure the defendant returns for court dates and to prevent dangerous defendants from being a threat to public safety.

According to the ACLU, nearly 500,000 people across the U.S. are being held in pretrial detention, often because they couldn't afford their bail. This may be in the interest of the bail bond industry, but it costs taxpayers money and places an enormous burden on the poor and disadvantaged.

People who can't afford their bail often end up in jail for weeks and months -- or in some cases, years. They may lose their jobs and even their homes as they await their court dates. Remember, this is before they have been convicted of any crime.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail, although court precedent has failed to rein it in. it's time to start asking whether our current cash bail system is smart or fair.

Many people are pressing for bail reform in Pennsylvania. Should judges be required to take a defendant's resources into account when setting bail? What opportunities for reform to you see?

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