Editorial: Court crackdown

Posted: July 06, 2010

A double-barreled drive to target $1 billion owed by bail jumpers while also mounting new efforts to tackle rampant witness intimidation represents another in the city's recent smart steps to reform the dysfunctional court system.

Making progress on both initiatives highlighted by officials last week is crucial to restoring public confidence in the city's ability to fight crime.

When defendants released on bail can skip court appearances without fear of any financial consequences, the criminal-justice system grinds to a halt.

Threats and actual attacks - more than a dozen witnesses or family members have been killed in the last decade - make it more difficult for police to solve murders and other violent crimes.

Both problems help explain the findings of an Inquirer investigation of a court system in crisis, with conviction rates so low that the state Supreme Court has ordered a probe.

The number of bail jumpers over the last four decades has grown to an appalling 47,000. Despite a city-run bail system that requires defendants to post only 10 percent of their bond, officials rarely chase down bail jumpers when they forfeit the balance.

It's welcome news, then, that Mayor Nutter and Common Pleas Court President Judge Pamela Dembe plan to dun thousands of people who owe bail money. Eventually, the names of those who don't come forward and set up a payment plan will be turned over to collection firms.

The city is being reasonable and realistic in offering bail jumpers the chance to retire their debts gradually, since many defendants and relatives who cosign their release have low incomes.

Even if the city doesn't pull in millions in forfeited bail money, the work being done to computerize once-handwritten records kept by the Clerk of Quarter Sessions should help to better track future bail jumpers. That reform was made possible by the recent pressured retirement of the clerk, Vivian T. Miller, and takeover of the clerk functions by Prothonotary Joseph H. Evers.

The far more intractable problem facing city officials, though, is assuring the safety of crime victims and others who provide evidence in criminal cases.

Nutter earlier announced that, for the first time, the city would add $200,000 to the witness-relocation program run by the District Attorney's Office. That's an important step, since it will increase the program by nearly 30 percent.

But safeguarding witnesses is costly, so Nutter last week turned to the city's Harrisburg delegation to boost state funding for these efforts. Since 2007, the commonwealth has let its funding lag by nearly 32 percent, while witness fears have only grown.

Congress also needs to get into the act by approving legislation authored by Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) that would make it a federal crime to threaten, harm, or kill a witness in a local case.

Beyond legislative pushes, the hands-on strategy being undertaken by District Attorney Seth Williams could pay dividends. Williams' recently launched listening tours through crime-ridden areas may help "break down the barrier" with residents that hinders police and prosecutors in seeking justice for crime victims.

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