Court administrators on Tuesday announced the imminent end of a "penalty-free period" put in place last month to encourage more than 400,000 people who owe the courts money to pay up.
That program included a temporary waiver of the steep collection costs traditionally associated with pursuing such debt. It will be replaced by a three-tier program that steadily rachets up the pressure and penalties on debtors.
"These people have been thumbing their noses at us," said David D. Wasson, chief deputy court administrator. "It's a court order, and we want compliance."
For decades, Philadelphia court officials have presided over an ineffective bail system that allowed accused criminals to skip court virtually without consequence. Defendants routinely failed to appear in court and just as routinely, failed to pay the forfeited bail that was supposed to come due as a result.
Over time, that debt grew so massive that court officials initially had difficulty tallying it. When they did so at The Inquirer's request, the total amount due came to $1 billion.
As The Inquirer reported in November, the Philadelphia courts have been similarly lenient in collecting tens of millions of dollars in restitution owed to crime victims, and they have lagged in dunning criminals for millions more in fines and court costs.
Philadelphia defendants are supposed to be paying $144 a million a year in fines, fees and restitution. Yet they are paying only $10 million a year, or about seven cents on the dollar. Most are months in arrears.
The new court effort aims to change that.
For most defendants, the payment plan will not be onerous. People who owe less than $9,000 - the average court debt is $3,750 - will be asked to pay a minimum of only $35 a month.
"Even if you're not working, you can afford to pay us something," Wasson said. "You could afford a dollar a day to your court. That's less than a bag of chips."
The "penalty-free" period announced at the beginning of the year brought an initial burst of new money: $2.7 million between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15, compared with $1.2 million collected during the same period last year, Wasson said.
"That's more than double," he said.
Wasson is now the top official of the Philadelphia courts after the retirement of Court Administrator David C. Lawrence.
To warn debtors of what's coming, the courts have put together a $15,000 radio campaign to begin Thursday night and end Monday. "The clock is ticking" the ads say, reminding defendants that they have only a few days to avoid surcharges.
To test the new system, the court selected 200 defendants with unusually large debts of $40,000 or more and hired a law firm to pressure them to pay up. Wasson said that 4 percent did so in just one year.
That rate, Wasson said, was "awesome, because people were telling us you might get 1 to 2 percent - ever. So 4 percent in one year is awesome."
The new crackdown is to be supervised by the Office of Court Compliance, headed by deputy court administrator Glenn Bozzocco, who will oversee a staff of six.
Under the three-tier program, the court system itself would initially dun debtors, sending letters out automatically as defendants who fall 30, 60, and 90 days behind.
If that doesn't work, the debts are to be turned over en masse to a collection agency, ACS, a Texas-based division of Xerox.
ACS, under contract with the courts since 2008, says it uses a "soft" approach to drum up money, pursuing defendants with letters and phone calls. ACS keeps 17 percent of what it collects; its commission is added on top of the debt.
If this approach fails, the court has created a collections tier. On Friday, it hired six area law firms to target the most hard-core debtors.
According to Wasson, these firms could attach wages or even force the sale of property to collect. The firms would extract a 25 percent collection fee, and debtors would also have to pay 6 percent interest on the overall debt.
The six firms are to initially take on $270 million in collections. "If we can get 4 percent back on that," Wasson said, "it would be beyond our wildest dreams."
He said the courts would carry out the policy with care. For one thing, he said the law firms would not go after relatives who might have co-signed for defendants.
Nor, he said, would the campaign target the impoverished.
"We're not going to make people homeless," he said. "We're not going after grandmom."
But Wasson said the courts would not hesitate to crack down on the most flagrant deadbeats.
"If you have a half-a-million house and you owe us $50,000 and you refuse to pay us even the $35 a month," he said, "we'll require you to downsize."
Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.