Students Win Penn Public Policy Challenge With Online Bail Payment System Plan

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | | 215-898-6460March 10, 2014

A team of graduate students has won this year’s University of Pennsylvania Fels Institute of Government’s Penn Public Policy Challenge with their innovative proposal for the Philadelphia County prison system. Their project advocates for the adoption of an online bail payment system. 

The BetterBAIL team triumphed over four others in the final round of the competition on March 2 to win a $5,000 grand prize and will move on to compete in the National Invitational Public Policy Challenge on March 23 at the National Constitution Center.

"BetterBail did a terrific job of convincing the judges that theirs was an idea both doable and worth doing,” David Thornburgh, executive director of Fels, said. “It's quintessential Penn at work, with a student team drawn from three schools bringing their best thinking to bear on a tough public problem."

The BetterBAIL team members are graduate students Laura Buckley and Cherlyn Lim in the School of Social Policy & Practice, Yosha Gunasekera of the Law School and Sabrina Maynard of Fels, part of the School of Arts and Sciences.

“Our BetterBAIL solution is a cost-effective and straightforward way to reduce the number of pretrial inmates in Philadelphia County,” the team wrote. “We propose drawing upon the existing online bail payment system that is currently in use in Erie, Chester, Westmoreland and Delaware counties in order to create a system that works for Philadelphia.”

The team’s full proposal is available at

"The BetterBAIL team took exactly the right approach in developing their policy solution,” said Elizabeth Tatum, executive director of the Penn Public Policy Challenge and a master’s student at Fels. “They were meticulous about researching the facts, but they also made it a priority to talk with the people who would be affected by their proposal. They even held a series of focus groups to better understand what is not working in the current bail payment system."

In addition to the grand prize, two runner-up teams each received $1,000 to advance their proposals. One, iCAN, was selected for a proposal to increase college access for low-income students through mentorship and targeted communications during the summer between high school graduation and the first year of college. Another, Philadelphia MVP, proposed the creation of an evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy intervention program for at-risk youth.

This year’s edition of the University-wide competition drew more than 40 students, representing seven of Penn’s 12 schools. The semi-final round in January winnowed the field of teams from 10 to five.

Team BetterBAIL will represent Penn at the National Invitational Public Policy Challenge on March 23 and will compete with teams from Columbia University, Georgetown University, New York University, Princeton University, the University of Chicago, the University of Georgia, the University of Minnesota, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Southern California and the University of Washington.

The event is free and open to the public. Registration is available at