Now, a new team has put the court's crucial record-keeping and bookkeeping operation on a sound footing.
It has gone after back bail, gotten a grip on $54 million languishing in a murky office bank account - and is poised to launch a precedent-setting plan to go digital with all criminal court filings.
That plan is the first step in an effort that could lead to opening all criminal court cases to public inspection at the click of a computer mouse.
This is no fantasy. The office's new leaders, Court Clerk Joseph H. Evers and his deputy, Deborah E. Dailey, granted the public access to the civil-lawsuit side of the court system in just this way in January.
Each year, round the clock, litigants file 500,000 separate documents with the civil system. Now, plaintiffs, defendants, their lawyers, and just ordinary citizens can view them all remotely on computers.
After Evers and Dailey recently laid out the elements of the new digital system for criminal cases - a first for criminal records in Pennsylvania - they predicted it could become a model for the state.
"As you can see, we're very enthusiastic," Evers said. "I think in two years we've done a remarkable job."
The pair briefed reporters on the changes in a training room, equipped with a floor-to-ceiling projection screen, inside the clerk offices in the third floor of the Criminal Justice Center, the city's main criminal courthouse across from City Hall.
On his way into the training room, Evers pointed out that under the last regime, the room had been forgotten storage space, stuffed with miscellaneous supplies and, inexplicably, medical folders for X-rays.
Until 2010, criminal-court financial records and dockets were maintained by the Clerk of Quarter Sessions' office, a citywide elected position held until that year by Vivian T. Miller.
After 19 years in the obscure row office, the 74-year-old Miller, a Democrat and a ward leader, retired mid-term amid increasing criticism of her office from top judges and government-reform groups. They blasted her agency as mismanaged and redundant, a vestigial function from another time.
Perhaps the death blow was dealt the tottering office in 2009 when The Inquirer, as part of an investigative project on the city's criminal courts, reported that fugitives on criminal charges owed $1 billion in forfeited bail, but Miller's staff had no useful records to establish who owed what.
In 2010, Mayor Nutter signed legislation that abolished the 300-year-old Quarter Sessions office, whose archaic name dated to medieval England, an age when court officials met quarterly at Epiphany, Easter, Midsummer, and Michaelmas.
Senior judges merged the 100-member staff into the existing court administration and appointed Evers, already civil court prothonotary for 15 years, to step in to fix things.
"It can't go anywhere but up," Evers said at the time.
Evers, 57, and Dailey, 51, who is the deputy prothonotary, had experience as court turnaround experts. In the 1990s, they were key players in a massive effort to help the Philadelphia civil court dig out of a backlog of 36,000 lawsuits. The triage they performed left operations running so smoothly that the National Center for State Courts later named the Philadelphia civil court as the best in the nation among large urban systems.
It's safe to say that in taking charge of the renamed criminal Clerk of Courts office, the pair were not greeted as liberators.
When Evers and Dailey first arrived, carrying a spread of coffee, tea, and pastries, Miller's top command - including her daughter, the office's first deputy - refused to let them enter the office suites. "Don't drink that coffee," one Miller deputy told other staffers.
The door was eventually opened, but Evers and Daily encountered resistance of a different kind whenever they questioned the office's long-entrenched ways of doing things.
"The expression we heard was, 'That's the way we've always done it,' " he said. "For us, that wasn't acceptable."
Among other changes, the new team quickly discovered that an unused feature of office software permitted clerks to use e-mail to alert city jailers when defendants were to be set free. This simple change ended the daily practice of driving judicial release orders to the city jail complex in Northeast Philadelphia, a paper shuffle that had held up some releases and even led to some orders being misplaced entirely.
They also dug into a $54 million Quarter Sessions account at the old Wachovia Bank, an accountant's nightmare of unclear deposits and fuzzy records. As they made sense of this, Evers and Dailey ended up giving the city treasury millions out of the account, as well as sending checks out of the blue to others owed court money.
Veteran defense lawyer Alan Sagot got a check for $3,000, a refund of bail several clients had long ago signed over to him to cover fees. Sagot said the money was no bonanza, but "they're trying to straighten things out, so I give them credit for that."
Jeffrey Azzarano, another criminal-defense lawyer, also got an unexpected bail-refund check. He said the clerk's office seemed transformed.
"It seems to be a night-and-day difference, 180 degrees different," Azzarano said. "Even morale seems to be better."
Evers and Dailey discovered the office had no policy of automatically returning bail deposits to defendants who appeared in court and were owed the money back. As Evers explained, the old office rule was "unless you came in and asked for it, they didn't give it to you."
But many, including defendants deemed not guilty, never asked. Now, the office refunds the money automatically, provided defendants have appeared at their hearings.
Along with giving money back, the office is also taking more in.
The office has also begun to chip away at collecting the $1 billion in forfeited bail, building a database from scratch to identify the deadbeats. Last year, David D. Wasson, the court system's top administrator, who has worked closely with Evers and Dailey, created a new Office of Court Compliance to go after money owed by fugitives or convicted defendants.
Annual collections, while dwarfed by the more than $1 billion owed, have nearly doubled since 2010.
In a court system with a high fugitive rate, advocates say the bail crackdown was way overdue. However, critics say it has resulted in many of the city's poorest residents being unfairly socked with bills for huge bail debts from years back.
Sharon Dietrich, a top lawyer with Community Legal Services, which helps low-income people with civil legal issues, cited one case in which a woman living off a $405 monthly welfare and food-stamp stipend was told to pay $170 of it for old bail.
The woman owed $16,000 after failing to show up for court for numerous arrests, mostly for prostitution, between 1992 and 2008. With help from CLS, her monthly bill repayment was cut to $20.
Court officials say they have tried to respond. They have streamlined the appeals process, put it online, and abolished the $12.50 filling fee.
Glenn S. Bozzacco, the new Office of Court Compliance chief, said the system was fair.
"I don't want to take a penny from anyone who doesn't owe it," he said. "But you have to own up and take some responsibility for what you've done."
While some people are upset at the demands for back bail, others are finding the office more effective, better at sending out restitution checks or helping people expunge criminal records.
Frank Crossin, 64, an office employee for 16 years and an expert at digging up hard-to-find cases, said the office appeared be working more efficiently now.
Though he said some staffers were less than happy about the new dress code - men must wear ties or polo shirts with the court logo - Crossin said most were relieved to keep their jobs. Fears of a purge in favor of new hires with fresh political connections proved groundless, he said.
Before the end of the year, the office will kick off its next major change - the move to a "paperless" system for criminal records.
Initially, prosecutors and defense lawyers will be asked to voluntarily file court papers - indictments, pretrial motions, petitions to reduce bail, suppression motions, and so on - as digital .pdf files, uploading them right from their offices.
For those without computers, the office will have scanners so documents can be converted on the spot at the courthouse.
In a courthouse where documents are still moved about on carts, the shift to digital - to be mandatory after a three-month shakeout period - should speed up operations and cut costs. On the civil side, Evers noted, the change spared the system $60,000 a year spent buying manila file folders.
At first only prosecutors and the defense bar will be able to access the filings online, though the courthouse will remain a place where the public can view all paper documents or view the digital ones at free terminals.
Eventually, Evers predicted, the digital system will be opened up to the public generally, just as the civil side was.
"It won't be long," Evers said.
Azzarano, the defense attorney, said he welcomed the ability to upload, especially after the courthouse closes at 5 p.m.
"I don't think it's going to be a hassle at all," he said. "It's going to be a lot more efficient and save a lot of time."
Contact Craig R. McCoy
at 215-854-4821 or firstname.lastname@example.org.