Phila. D.A. says bail system is "broken"

Posted: January 20, 2010

Decrying the massive number of fugitives from justice in Philadelphia, District Attorney Seth Williams said yesterday that the city's "broken" bail system amounted to a second assault on crime victims.

Speaking at a Senate subcommittee hearing, Williams said Philadelphia defendants had learned to "defeat the system" by failing to show up for court, wearing down witnesses and causing cases to collapse in large numbers each year.

"When defendants are fugitives and fail to appear, it revictimizes our victims," he said. "They don't get their cup of justice filled."

As The Inquirer reported last month, Philadelphia has almost 47,000 long-term fugitives, one of the nation's highest tallies.

The newspaper's analysis of court data from 2007 and 2008 showed that nearly 19,000 defendants each year fail to show up for at least one hearing. That is one out of every three defendants.

"If we're going to address criminal behavior, it's not the severity of punishment that matters, it is the certainty of punishment," said Williams, who took office this month. "And there is no certainty of punishment when one out of three defendants fails to appear."

To fix the system, Williams and other witnesses said, cracking down on forfeited bail could deter defendants from skipping court - even if that meant collecting it from their relatives.

He also said the court system, which oversees the city's bail program, should begin using a "means test" to see if people who post bail could afford to pay the full amount if a defendant skips.

And he called on the city to eliminate the elective Clerk of Quarter Sessions office, which has been faulted for keeping inadequate records of bail debt. Earlier this month, Ronald D. Castille, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, ordered the courts to assume most of that office's functions.

The clerk's office has been so ineffective, Williams said, that it "contributes to the fugitive crisis instead of alleviating it."

Marc Gaillard, the deputy clerk of quarter sessions, defended the office and said it had been unfairly characterized as remiss in its duties. "We want to be a part of the solution to the problems Philadelphia's criminal-justice system is experiencing, and not the scapegoat," he said.

Dennis A. Bartlett, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, an association of private bail insurance companies, said Philadelphia could solve its problems if it abandoned its reliance on government-run bail.

Private companies, he said, have a far better track record of getting defendants into court. He said academic and federal research reports support that view. Citing widespread corruption, the Philadelphia courts took over from bail-bond companies about four decades ago.

While many fugitives eventually resurface and show up for court, they often find that victims have given up pursuing cases. For many victims, their ordeal in court amounts to a "Bataan death march," Williams said yesterday.

A significant number of fugitives stay gone, however. Among large urban counties, federal studies show that Philadelphia is tied with Essex County, N.J. - home of Newark - for the nation's worst long-term fugitive rate.

As The Inquirer reported, fugitives jump bail in Philadelphia with virtual impunity. Under the city's bail system, administered by court officials, many defendants pay 10 percent of their bail up front, with the other 90 percent coming due if they fail to appear in court.

But for decades, the city has taken no steps to collect that money, with the result that fugitives owe the city $1 billion in forfeited bail.

At yesterday's hearing, held at the National Constitution Center, Williams and other witnesses said it was past time for the city to revamp the system.

The hearing was the second public step in an inquiry that U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) launched in response to a four-part Inquirer series published last month. Besides describing the broken bail system and high fugitive count, the series documented widespread witness intimidation and the nation's worst felony-conviction rate.

In an unprecedented data analysis, the newspaper found that defendants were escaping conviction on all charges in nearly two-thirds of criminal cases.

Williams said the paper's findings echoed his long-held worries about the system.

"I, as a Philadelphian, was saddened by the statistics of our broken criminal-justice system," he told Specter. "I'm very glad that someone found the empirical evidence and the data, and that you and others are listening now."

Specter, a Philadelphia district attorney from 1966 to 1974, described the failings of the city's court system as deep-rooted and serious.

"The bail system is certainly not working now," he said.

The city needs to take steps, perhaps with federal help, to "put people on notice that they can't game the system" by simply ignoring court hearings, he said.

Also in response to the newspaper's work, U.S. Rep Joe Sestak (D., Pa.), running against Specter in the Democratic primary, called for a nationwide study on how to reform bail. He said that under his proposal, Philadelphia could be selected as a place to test the best new approaches.

Specter said he would urge his colleagues in the Senate to revive a proposal to channel federal money to cities to help stem the tide of fugitives.

"We would welcome that," said David V. Preski, the Philadelphia court official who oversees a 52-officer squad charged with apprehending fugitives. In just the past year, he said, the squad lost 21 officers to budget cuts.

Specter said he was stunned that Philadelphia court officials had not taken the simple step of registering fugitives with the National Criminal Information Center, a repository of 1.7 million fugitive warrants from across the country that is accessible to law enforcement nationwide.

Roy G. Weise, a senior adviser with the FBI who developed the software for that system, testified that it helps offiers capture a fugitive every 90 seconds.

Specter chided Philadelphia court officials, saying, "It's a pretty big omission not to register the fugitives with the national system."

"Correct," said Preski, who added that court officials would begin doing so in May.

As for why they had not done so sooner, he said: "I believe it was a logistical problem with computer people."

At Sestak's news conference, the congressman was joined by John Goldkamp, a professor at Temple University who is a leading expert on the Philadelphia courts.

Goldkamp said bail decisions should be based strictly on a defendant's risk of flight and potential threat to the public.

Turning the matter over to private firms, he said, has drawbacks: It jails the poor solely because they are poor and cannot make bail, or it gives richer defendants a shortcut out of prison.

"For those with ready cash, such as drug dealers, it offers a guarantee of purchasing freedom," Goldkamp said.

In his call for a study, Sestak initially ruled out research on the effectiveness of using private firms. Asked whether this meant he had prejudged the issue, he said, "That's not a bad point," and said he would put no restrictions on any study.

Specter said private bail might be part of the answer.

"When I was district attorney, there was corruption in the bail system and the bail system went by the boards," he said, "but it may be time to take another look at it."


 

Read The Inquirer's look at Philadelphia's justice system in a multimedia presentation at

courts


 

Read The Inquirer's look at Philadelphia's justice system in a multimedia presentation at


Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-4821 or nphillips@phillynews.com.

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