Philadelphia's new Bench Warrant Court is cracking down on fugitives

Posted: May 07, 2012

Julian Shelton's most recent crime rampage unfolded this spring, police say.

On March 15, he was arrested on charges of swiping $21 worth of merchandise from a store at 21st Street and Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia.

Shelton immediately skipped court, only to be picked up the next month. This time, police accused him of taking $20 from a new victim at knifepoint.

In the past, alleged robbers such as Shelton typically faced no consequences for ducking court. Even when arrested for a new crime, they were simply given a new court date and set free.

No longer.

Last week, Shelton was held in contempt for skipping court - and jailed. He and 300 fugitives like him faced this new, tougher punishment in the latest change for the Philadelphia criminal justice system in the wake of an investigative project in The Inquirer. The 2009 series portrayed the Philadelphia courts as having one of the nation's highest fugitive rates and one of the lowest conviction rates for violent crime.

In the latest shake-up, a new Bench Warrant Court has been established to go after fugitives. Shelton, 51, arrested 14 times in 20 years, learned about the new crackdown the hard way.

The judge in the new court, Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr., brushed aside a defense lawyer's explanation that Shelton had failed to attend court because he was high on drugs. He increased his bail and ordered him locked up for five days for contempt.

Waters has handed out 300 of these brief jail terms since Bench Warrant Court kicked off last month. The court's warrant unit has been rounding up the most violent fugitives in that period and bringing them before the new court for hearings.

"The idea is to send a message," Waters said. "I mean, 33 percent of our people don't show up for court."

Early figures suggest that word of the crackdown is getting out, apparently migrating from defense lawyers to defendants to the street.

In the three weeks since the program started, judges have been handing out markedly fewer bench warrants for missing defendants daily. The trend, extrapolated to a year, could mean 1,000 or more fewer fugitives annually.

"These are only very preliminary results, but they are incredibly compelling," said William Chadwick, a former prosecutor who helped design the new program.

But a skeptical note was struck by Bradley Bridge, a senior lawyer with the Defender Association, which represents most of the 60,000 people arrested yearly in Philadelphia, those too poor to hire a private defense lawyer.

He noted that cases passed up to Common Pleas Court for trial could still collapse or end in acquittals. Municipal Court judges might merely be failing in their "gatekeeper" role, he said. Only conviction data would resolve the issue, he said.

"Is this a case of decent prosecutions or a case of garbage in/garbage out?" Bridge said. "The data does not provide the answer to that question."

The new figures are the latest in a series of fresh statistics that collectively portray a court system determined to get a grip on its performance and to put teeth into its proceedings.

The Inquirer series, "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied," depicted the system as overwhelmed by its oppressive caseload, focused almost exclusively on disposing of cases regardless of their merits.

At the urging of Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and fellow Justice Seamus McCaffery, the courts have taken steps to reduce witness intimidation, speed up cases, and limit defense delays and gamesmanship. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who took office in January 2010, also implemented changes after campaigning on a platform urging a new data-based approach to prosecutions.

In new figures released last week, the changes are evident - and sweeping.

In 2009, for example, judges in the lower Municipal Court held defendants for a full trial in the system's upper Common Pleas Court in only 52 percent of violent-crime dockets. Last year, they held defendants for trial in 62 percent of dockets.

(The figures exclude cases of domestic violence, in which the breakdown rate for cases remains stubbornly high, as battered spouses drop out of court proceedings at high rates.)

The trend was fueled by especially sharp swings in the "held for trial" rate in cases of robbery and serious assault. For instance, the percent of accused robbers held for trial jumped from 46 percent of all such dockets to 62 percent between 2009 and 2011.

The figures were released by Chadwick and his aide, Laura A. Linton. Hired by the State Supreme Court, they have been working closely with Jaime S. Henderson, the court system's new research and information analyst.

McCaffery, a former top judge in Philadelphia Municipal Court, said the trend meant far more cases were now being decided on their merits, providing "fair access to the law, both for the victims and the accused."

Ronald Eisenberg, a top aide to Williams, also applauded the trends.

"We know there is still a lot of work to do, but we are gratified that many things are moving in the right direction," he said.

Even before the implementation of Bench Warrant Court, the fugitive problem appears to have been ebbing. The courts have been making headway in cutting the number of fugitives and in collecting a staggering $1 billion in back bail and other costs.

Last year, Court Administrator David D. Wasson and a top aide, Glenn Bozzacco, set up a 10-member unit to dun the guilty to make sure they pay up. The courts also hired lawyers and collection firms to go after money.

In 2009 the Philadelphia courts collected only $39,000 in forfeited bail. This year, the system expects to collect $3 million.

While a fraction of the money owed, that's about a third of the new debt run up by fresh fugitives each year.

Defendants also are paying far more in fines, court fees, and restitution to victims.

That sum is expected to hit $19 million this year, up 60 percent in just two years.

In one highly publicized aspect of this campaign, the court last year announced a program to target 622 city employees with criminal records who owed from old cases. The system finally garnisheed the pay of this group last fall and is on track to wipe out this debt within five years.

In an interview last week, Wasson said the courts realized that many defendants were desperately poor. In response to criticism from lawyers for low-income clients, the courts have now agreed that welfare recipient can pay as little as $10 a month toward court debts. At the same time, Wasson said, the system wanted to send a message that "the rule of law" had real meaning.

With cases moving more swiftly through the system, the sheer number of defendants on the run has been decreasing, too.

In 2009, Philadelphia judges issued nearly 21,000 bench warrants. Last year, the figure fell 13 percent, to about 18,200, according to Wasson.

McCaffery says he expects the new Bench Warrant Court to further trim that number.

Bridge, of the Defender Association, said he was concerned that there was little attempt during Bench Warrant Court to verify defendants' stories or to check prosecutors' assertions.

Michael J. Engle, a former head of the state's Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, agreed.

"It's a very rushed process - very difficult for the lawyer to get a handle on the facts and effectively represent the clients," Engle said.

McCaffery disagreed, saying the legal question at issue - the reasons for a missed court appearance - did not require a complicated hearing.

"This isn't rushed," he said. The problem the program addresses, he added, "has been going on for 20 or 30 years."

Waters has ruled on about 1,400 cases of defendants who skipped hearings. He held defendants in contempt in 315 cases, treating most severely those defendants with many skipped hearing and multiple open cases.

He held one man in contempt who pleaded that he had to skip court because he was the only breadwinner for two children and another man who said he missed a hearing because he was recuperating from being shot in the head.

In one case, he effectively lowered bail to zero for a defendant, accused drug dealer Luis Legarrets, who turned 20 a week before the hearing, to make sure he could attend his mother's funeral. Legarrets burst into tears during the bench-warrant hearing, held in a grim cinder-block space inside the city's main prison on State Road in the Northeast.

After lowering the bail, Waters warned Legarrets to attend court in the future.

"You miss one of your hearing dates, you'll come back here," he said. "You don't want to come back here."


In a four-part series, "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied,"

The Inquirer revealed

a Philadelphia court system in crisis, plagued by some of the nation's lowest conviction rates, rampant witness intimidation, a massive number of fugitives,

and the dismissal of thousands of cases each year without any ruling on their merits. Since

the series was published in late 2009, the system has been dramatically changed. To read the series and see follow-up articles, visit www.philly.com/courts


Contact Craig R. McCoy

at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

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