If you are charged with a crime (a misdemeanor or a felony) in Pennsylvania, your first court appearance after being charged by the police will be what is known as a “preliminary arraignment” (sometimes called a “bail hearing”). The purpose of the hearing is to inform defendants of the charges again them, and to set bail. Preliminary arraignments usually take place before of a Magisterial District Judge in counties outside of Philadelphia, or before a Bail Commissioner in Philadelphia.
There are different types of bail. Being “Released on Own Recognizance” (“ROR”) or “unsecured bail” each result in the person being released from or remaining out of custody without having to post money bail. Sometimes courts will set “ten percent” bail, meaning that ten percent of the amount of bail set (for example, $500 on a $5,000 bail) must be posted for the person to be released from custody. Or, sometimes bail will be set at “cash bail”, meaning that 100% of the bail set must be posted for a person to be released pending trial.
The right to have bail set when you are charged with a crime (except in cases charging the defendant with murder or a crime which could result in a sentence of life imprisonment) is guaranteed by the United States and the Pennsylvania Constitutions. Bail is not legally permissible to punish a defendant for the crime for which they are charged but have not yet gone to trial. That is because under the law, every defendant is presumed innocent until they are either proven guilty at trial or voluntarily plead guilty. Bail is also not permitted to be used by the court or the authorities as a “deterrent” discourage other people from engaging in certain activities (for example, to discourage other people from peacefully participating in public protests or demonstrations).
The main purpose for which bail may be set is to guarantee the defendant’s appearance at future court hearings and trial. A secondary purpose is to reduce the chance that the defendant may pose a danger to the community or specific members of the community.
Because of this, the main focus of a judge or magistrate’s bail decision focuses on the degree to which the defendant may present a risk of flight before trial. Relevant factors include whether the defendant has stable ties to the community (such as a fixed address, how long the defendant has lived in the community or at their present address, a job and length of employment, and close family in ties the community) – all of which tend to reduce a person’s risk of flight. These factors are weighed against factors that tend to increase a person’s risk of flight before trial, for example, the seriousness of the current charge and any prior criminal record (each of which could affect a person’s sentence if convicted), whether the person has a history of prior failures to appear in court, whether a person is currently on probation or parole, or whether the person has a serious substance abuse problem.
Preliminary arraignments (“bail hearings”) usually happen very quickly after a person has been charged, especially if the person is in custody at the time of the hearing. Having an attorney present at the bail hearing can often make a significant difference in the type and amount of bail that is set, and whether the person stays in jail or is released pending trial. So if you or a loved one are charged with a crime, you should contact an attorney immediately for representation at the bail hearing.