It is a system that renders meaningless the threat of seizure of bail money, fueling a massive fugitive problem and leading to an astronomical amount of uncollected debt.
"Bail judgments just aren't paid off unless something miraculous happens," said David D. Wasson, chief deputy court administrator.
The problems have persisted and grown worse even though District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham and top court officials have tried to sound an alarm.
A decade ago, Abraham wrote the mayor to demand reform, saying the problem "makes a mockery of the bail system."
Last week, President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe of Common Pleas Court said Philadelphia's budget crisis made the problem all the more pressing. Mayor Nutter is pushing for a $1 billion cut in the city's five-year spending plan.
"The city desperately needs the money," Dembe said.
Court officials acknowledge that much of the bail money may be uncollectible, given the poverty of many defendants or those who signed for their bail. Some of the uncollected debt dates back 30 years.
But they say an aggressive collection strategy could pay big dividends, both in deterring fugitives and in putting money in the bank.
In an interview last week, Nutter's city solicitor, Shelley R. Smith, said the city finally grasped the magnitude of the problem.
After The Inquirer raised the issue, the city on Jan. 26 put out a formal proposal to hire a collection agency to go after that money.
Criminal defendants released before trial typically must pay the city 10 percent of their total bail. If a defendant shows up in court, the 10 percent is returned, less a small fee. If a defendant skips, the city seizes the deposit, and the remaining 90 percent of the bail comes due.
Every day in Philadelphia courts, judges order bail forfeitures in scores of criminal cases. Civil judgments are entered against most of those who owe bail debts, but the bulk of the money is never paid.
In interviews, court officials and city lawyers blamed each other for the inaction.
Clerk of Quarter Sessions Vivian T. Miller, whose office handles court files and bail records, said her employees mailed out letters alerting people that they owed bail, but did nothing beyond that.
Miller and court administrators said the responsibility for collections fell to the City Solicitor's Office, which for years has largely forsaken its role in handling those claims.
But Dan Cantu-Hertzler, chair of the office's corporate and tax group, said Miller's office had dropped the ball by not passing on the names of the debtors as required.
In any case, Smith, the solicitor, said the city planned to do a better job by hiring an outside firm. As for why it had taken so long, she said: "I cannot speak to the historical lapse."
In part, the mess appears to be an unforeseen consequence of a previous effort at reform.
In the 1960s, court officials essentially ended the role of private bail bond firms in Philadelphia. They did so after a scandal in which some bondsmen gouged clients with outrageous fees and others assaulted people who had jumped bail.
This set the stage for the current system, handled by the courts alone.
In some other cities, such as New York, court officials simply collect 100 percent of the bail money at the very beginning.
"We're not in the business of going after the money," said Justin Barry, counsel to the administrative judge of New York City Criminal Court.
In many cases, New York defendants go to private bail firms, paying them a percentage of the bail up front. The firms pay the city the entire amount, assuming the risk if their clients flee.
New York's policy of requiring 100 percent of the money in advance discourages people from skipping court, Barry said.
"That's the whole point," he said. "There's a serious penalty if the defendant doesn't show. Mom is going to lose her $5,000 that she put up. You're going to lose the $5,000 you put up. You think twice before you decide to blow off your court appearance."
At the same time, Barry acknowledged, the policy is harsh on the poor.
"Sure," he said. "There are plenty of people sitting in Rikers Island or one of the other local jails awaiting the ultimate disposal of their cases because they can't make the bail."
In part, Philadelphia appears to have been reluctant to go after bail money because it's tough and tedious legal work.
"It's a nasty process to collect," court administrator David C. Lawrence said.
"I've gone to several city administrations and gone, 'Yo, you guys want to take a look at this?' And gotten the blood-from-a-stone argument."
If many criminal defendants can't pay, the question is why they were allowed to post bail in the first place.
In Philadelphia, there is little financial evaluation in the setting of bail. There is no means test to make sure the person who posts the 10 percent can pay up if the defendant doesn't show up in court.
"It makes a whole lot of sense to do that," Lawrence said, "but if we did a means test, I'd need 27 more jails."
Critics say the current system is farcical.
"It's easier to bail out a rapist or murderer than it is to apply for a loan to get a used car," said Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson of the homicide unit. "There is absolutely no research done as to their ability to pay."
He and other prosecutors decried the city's nonchalant attitude toward bail forfeitures.
"There's millions of dollars in valid, enforceable judgments, and they go unenforced," Gilson said. "Some of them might not be collectible, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying to collect them."
In 1999, when the city held a contest for employees seeking ideas on how the government could save money, Gilson suggested enforcing the bail judgments. He didn't win, but he got a letter thanking him for the idea.
Gilson had become something of an expert on the failure of the system because of his involvement in a rare case in which the city did aggressively go after forfeited bail.
In 1996, he was assigned to prosecute David Nam, who fled to South Korea rather than face trial in the robbery and shooting death of a 77-year-old man. Nam's father had posted 10 percent of $1 million bail and promised to pay the rest should his son fail to show up for trial.
In 1998, at the urging of Abraham, Mayor Edward G. Rendell directed city lawyers to break with practice and go after the bail debt in that case. When Nam's father filed for bankruptcy and sought to erase the debt, the city fought him in court and won.
The District Attorney's Office tracked down Nam in Seoul, South Korea, and last year he was extradited to face trial. His father, who later moved to South Korea, remains there, city officials say, and bail is still owed.
"We need the money," Gilson said. "He owes us."
Abraham, in a 1998 letter to Rendell, called the city's failure to pursue bail forfeitures a "serious problem in the criminal justice system."
She said so again in her budget address to City Council in 2004 - to no avail.
In an interview last week, Abraham sounded exasperated.
"It's a system that's designed to be exactly the way it is: utter failure," she said.
Of the debt, Abraham said: "It's been growing. It's been growing, right in front of our very eyes."
In their defense, court administrators said poor recordkeeping by the Quarter Sessions Office masked the full extent of the problem.
When officials first tried to find the total owed, they realized that records were missing for debts run up before September 2006.
"There wasn't a book at all" for those accounts, said Wasson, the deputy court administrator. "It was just totally missing. So their books completely understated millions and millions of dollars."
To resolve the issue, court officials obtained a list of bail judgments from the Prothonotary's Office. They found millions of dollars in unpaid bail each year, dating back more than 30 years.
In all, it took court officials three tries to come up with a total for the bail debt. At first, they told The Inquirer it was only about $2 million. Then, they pegged it at $382 million.
More recently, officials released a listing of all debtors. They said the final total, accumulating debts back to 1978, was $1,001,432,474.
Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.