Deaths Put Focus on Bail System; the Murder-Suicide of a Couple in Washington County Last Week Drew Criticism of the Way a Judge Handled Domestic Violence Charges That Had Been Pending against the Husband, but Highlighted What Some Say Is a Flawed Bail System in Pennsylvania. [Derived Headline]

By Czebiniak, Madasyn | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

Deaths Put Focus on Bail System; the Murder-Suicide of a Couple in Washington County Last Week Drew Criticism of the Way a Judge Handled Domestic Violence Charges That Had Been Pending against the Husband, but Highlighted What Some Say Is a Flawed Bail System in Pennsylvania. [Derived Headline]


Czebiniak, Madasyn, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


The murder-suicide of a couple in Washington County last week drew criticism of the way a judge handled domestic violence charges that had been pending against the husband, but highlighted what some say is a flawed bail system in Pennsylvania.

"You could not describe our bail system in any other manner than haphazard," said John E. Wetzel, Pennsylvania secretary of Corrections. "I would even be hesitant to say we have a bail system."

Some parts of Pennsylvania, such as Allegheny County and Philadelphia, are exceeding expectations or working toward a better system of pretrial justice, while others are lacking, said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, an organization based in Rockville, Md., that advocates for safe, fair and effective pretrial practices and policies.

Burdeen said most jails are filled with pretrial defendants who can't pay their bails, so they remained locked up.

The current system sets bail to guarantee an offender's appearance at trial. But who stays in jail and gets out is based on an offender's ability to pay.

Wetzel advocates a system that would assign bail based on a risk assessment that might include whether the offense is violent, the offender's age and whether the accused has a criminal record and the seriousness of past crimes.

"The purpose of the risk-needs tool for the judges is not to replace their discretion, but it's to give them more information and more objective information ... which is what our system should be accomplishing," he said.

Wetzel has asked the Council of State Governments Justice Center to look into the bail system as part of a bipartisan Justice Reinvestment Initiative under way in Pennsylvania. The center is a nonprofit that offers evidence-based strategies to increase public safety.

A reformed bail system is needed to better protect domestic violence victims from their abusers, Wetzel said.

"I don't know how many of these horrible cases are going to have to happen until we move on this," he said.

Authorities said that Kevin Ewing, 47, kidnapped his wife, Tierne Ewing, 48, at gunpoint from a West Finley, Washington County, home. The incident came shortly after Ewing was released on bond after having been accused of abducting his wife and holding her captive for 13 days.

Ewing posted his $100,000 bond in that case and was put on electronic monitoring by Common Pleas Judge Gary Gilman who, despite a prosecutor's request, did not raise the bail, which might have kept Ewing in jail. After the second abduction, Ewing took his wife to a barn where he shot her in the head and then turned the gun on himself, authorities said.

Gilman previously declined to comment through his staff and could not be reached Tuesday.

Inequity for accused cited

Wetzel, who lost a childhood friend in a domestic violence murder- suicide last year, said the system is flawed.

"If I'm somebody who has means, and I'm accused of raping a bunch of people, and they set my bail at $1 million, I'm making bail. …

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Deaths Put Focus on Bail System; the Murder-Suicide of a Couple in Washington County Last Week Drew Criticism of the Way a Judge Handled Domestic Violence Charges That Had Been Pending against the Husband, but Highlighted What Some Say Is a Flawed Bail System in Pennsylvania. [Derived Headline]
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