Philadelphia is tied with Newark, N.J., for the nation's highest fugitive rate, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics, and its defendants skip court with virtual impunity. At last count, there were nearly 47,000 fugitives from Philadelphia criminal courts, and the city had an uncollected debt of $1 billion in forfeited bail.
To make matters worse, the Philadelphia courts have delayed for years sharing bench warrants with the FBI's national database of wanted criminals.
In an interview yesterday, Specter, a former Philadelphia district attorney, called that "an enormous problem."
"It makes the criminal justice system a laughingstock if you can flee and there's no record of your flight," he said, "and you're apprehended somewhere, but you're not returned for trial."
Among other steps, the bill Specter introduced yesterday would steer a total of $50 million over five years to courts and police to help them tie their data into the FBI database.
The money may come too late to be of much use for the Philadelphia system. After delays that city court officials blamed on computer problems, the master list of Philadelphia fugitives is to be put into the FBI database in May, they have said.
That is not soon enough for Specter.
"Every day that goes by, there's additional risk to people being victims of criminal conduct by these people who are fugitives," he said.
On March 4, the senator wrote the city's two top judges to urge the courts to accelerate the timetable. So far, Specter said, he has received no reply from D. Webster Keogh, the administrative judge of Common Pleas Court, and Pamela Pryor Dembe, the president judge.
Dembe could not be reached for comment yesterday. Keogh did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Besides budgeting $50 million to help update the national fugitive database, Specter's bill would provide an additional $150 million over five years to help states pay for the cost of extraditing fugitives.
In decrying the fugitive problem, Specter also cited a series published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2008.
The newspaper found more than a third of the million felony warrants nationwide are not entered into the FBI database, though it was founded in 1967.
When fugitives stay at large, they escape justice on old crimes and can go one to commit new ones. Moreover, as Specter pointed out yesterday in his bill's text, they pose a danger to police, who may stop them without realizing they are on the run.
Specter, who is seeking reelection this year, faces opposition in the spring Democratic primary from U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak from Delaware County.
Sestak also reacted to the Inquirer series. He held a community forum on witness intimidation and called for a nationwide study on ways to reform bail. He said that under his proposal, Philadelphia could be selected as a place to test the best approaches.
At a Senate subcommittee hearing called by Specter in January, David V. Preski, chief of the pretrial service division of the Philadelphia courts, said his office would welcome federal assistance for the effort to catch fugitives.
Preski, who oversees the courts' beleaguered fugitive squad, testified that the 52-officer unit had lost 21 officers to budget cuts in just the last year. With 47,000 fugitives on the run, that's a caseload of more than 900 per officer.
Yesterday, Preski declined to comment. Through a secretary, he said he would respond only to written inquiries. The secretary said Preski's boss, Keogh, had instructed him not to speak to reporters unless questions were submitted in writing.
David D. Wasson, the chief deputy court administrator, did not return phone calls or e-mail messages.
Since The Inquirer's series was published, Specter has been highlighting issues in the city's criminal justice system.
He held a subcommittee hearing on witness intimidation, as well as the one on the fugitive problem. He proposed legislation to make it a federal crime to intimidate a witness in a state case, and to provide tough new penalties.
And he urged the U.S. Marshals Service to reallocate its budget to channel more money to the Marshals Service in Philadelphia to help the court system's fugitive squad round up people who had skipped court.
At the January hearing on fugitives, Specter pressed Preski to explain why the Philadelphia court system had not hooked into the national database.
"I believe it was a logistical problem with computer people," Preski said.
Specter replied, "It's a pretty big omission not to register the fugitives with the national system."
Said Preski: "Correct."
Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.