Pleading Guilty to Get Out of Jail
The criminalization of poverty in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, has led to a staggering increase in incarcerated people, all at a huge cost for defendants and taxpayers alike.
Tiana Lescalleet was camping near Washington Township, Pennsylvania, on April 25, 2016, when probation and parole officers arrived to arrest a man she was with. He was wanted on a parole warrant, but the interaction also resulted in Lescalleet being taken into custody.
While her friend was being arrested, officers found numerous pieces of jewelry in his pants pockets that Officer Stephen Shannon determined were stolen a few days earlier from Lescalleet’s mother’s home in Maryland, according to an affidavit that Shannon signed. Drug paraphernalia, including a “glass smoking device,” a spoon with “burnt residue,” and syringes were found inside the tent along with two cellophane packets that contained drugs, Shannon wrote. He then arrested and charged Lescalleet and her friend Travis Kint Jr. with misdemeanor counts of receiving stolen property, possession of drug paraphernalia, and drug possession.
Though Lescalleet, 28, had no criminal record, Magisterial District Judge Glenn Manns set her bail at $75,000, and she was remanded to Franklin County Jail. Because she was unable to purchase her freedom, Lescalleet had two options: plead guilty and hopefully get released because she was facing low-level offenses, or remain in jail and fight the charges. She spent the next month in jail before pleading guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia. On May 25, 2016, Lescalleet was released and sentenced to six months’ probation.
Her probation ended more than two years ago, but she still owes more than $670 in fines and fees. In 2018, her case was turned over to a debt collection agency, which will affect Lescalleet’s creditworthiness for years to come.
On any given day, approximately 500,000 people sit in county jails pretrial across the United States, most because they are unable to pay bail.
In 2016, Lescalleet was one of more than 100 people held in Franklin County Jail who were found not guilty, had their cases dismissed, or entered a guilty plea and got released on a non-incarceration sentence. The Appeal collected and reviewed more than 2,200 criminal dockets filed in the county by scraping dockets filed in the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania. The review includes all of the criminal cases filed in the county that were not expunged before the review.
In more than 75 percent of the cases, the person charged faced no more than a misdemeanor as the lead charge. The average case lasted 30 days before the defendant was released. What’s more, those cases in which the individual did not pay bail have cost the county the equivalent of more than 8,000 bed days at the jail, or an average of roughly $71 per person, per day.
“We’ve created a machinery that churns out low-level convictions based not on individual guilt or culpability, but on an individual’s ability to pay,” Alexandra Natapoff, professor of law at the University of California, Irvine and author of “Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal,” told The Appeal.
Natapoff described the combination of prosecution of misdemeanor level offenses and unreasonably high bail amounts as the “criminalization of poverty,” lamenting “a now-infamous phenomenon of people pleading guilty merely to get out of jail.”
On any given day, approximately 500,000 people sit in county jails pretrial across the United States, most because they are unable to pay bail. A 2018 study of defendants in Philadelphia and Miami-Dade counties by researchers at Princeton, Stanford, and Harvard universities reports that people being held for an inability to pay bail earned roughly $4,500 a year on average.
The researchers found that less than half of the people who were required to pay bail were able to do so within three days—yielding negative impacts on their cases, such as a higher likelihood of guilty pleas, and on their post-release lives, such as a loss of employment and a greater likelihood of committing a new crime. The authors also found that, compared to defendants who were held for three days or more pretrial, people who were able to post bail within three days were nearly 25 percent less likely to be found guilty or plead guilty. People who were able to post bail were also nearly 25 percent more likely to find gainful employment afterward.
In Franklin County, the criminalization of poor people also costs taxpayers. Between 2009 and 2019, the county jail’s operations budget increased more than 40 percent to nearly $13 million per year, which is paid almost exclusively through tax revenue. In that time, the jail’s population has also swelled. In 2009, an average of 297 people per day were held there, according to data compiled by the Vera Institute. About 94 of those people were being held pretrial. By 2015, those numbers rose to 394 and 175. In April, roughly 500 people were being held, and 200 of those were awaiting a trial or sentencing each day.
And yet, the number of reported crimes, criminal case filings, and people receiving a jail sentence—all of which are factors that could cause a rise in incarceration—have remained largely flat. The jail incarceration rate in Franklin County is now more than double that of neighboring Cumberland County and higher than the state average.
Franklin is a rural county in south-central Pennsylvania, on the border with Maryland, that has about 150,000 residents with a median household income of roughly $58,000. More than a quarter of all households earn less than $35,000 and a little more than 10 percent of the population lives at or below the federal poverty line.
The county jail has a rated capacity of a little more than 300 people, which this year forced officials to send an average of 24 people each month to other jails to reduce overcrowding. As a result, the county must pay a daily rate of $55 to $65 per person to use other county jails, costing more than $170,000 through the first four months of this year alone.
Dave Keller, chairperson of the County Commissioners, acknowledges that bail amounts are higher than other counties, but he said he did not believe bail was the driving factor in the increase in the jail population. Keller said the average length of a jail stay has risen substantially while the use of a day reporting center, which allows people to be released before completing their minimum sentence, has decreased.
However, those factors are most likely to affect people who are sentenced to jail and would not account for the more than doubling of the number of people in jail awaiting trial or sentencing.
Keller said the county is in the process of implementing new software that will help better evaluate the role of bail and pretrial incarceration on the jail population.
“The heart of the reform, the heart of the change, would require the misdemeanor system to stop criminalizing poverty,” Natapoff said. “To stop conditioning incarceration and punishment on an individual’s ability to pay.”