Philadelphia court crackdown on fugitives is working

Posted: April 22, 2013

For decades, fugitives thumbed their noses at judges in Philadelphia. But now something remarkable has happened: Criminal defendants are showing up for court.

A year ago, the judge in a new Bench Warrant Court began to crack down on defendants who ducked out on court, handing out thousands of brief jail terms.

Since then, the fugitive rate has fallen nearly in half, new figures show.

"The results are pretty astounding," said Ronald D. Castille, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. "I think the word got out pretty quickly on the street. That's why you are seeing that huge drop-off."

Consultant William G. Chadwick, an adviser to the Philadelphia courts in a multiyear effort to overhaul the criminal justice system, said imposing consequences on absconders had paid off.

"I think this is the most compelling measurable impact of the entire court reform initiative," Chadwick said. "The failure-to-appear rate is plummeting. It's just stunning how much it's fallen."

At the same time, the Philadelphia jail population has jumped dramatically. Some critics say the fugitive crackdown has helped fuel that, though Chadwick and other experts say the program's impact on the inmate count has been exaggerated.

Castille and fellow Justice Seamus P. McCaffery launched the reform initiative in response to a 2009 Inquirer investigative series titled "Justice: Delayed, dismissed, denied."

The newspaper reported that Philadelphia had one of the nation's lowest conviction rates for violent crimes and one of the highest fugitives rates. The series disclosed that, at the time, Philadelphia had 47,000 fugitives and that absconders owed $1 billion in uncollected bail.

In a revolving-door system that a top prosecutor called "a complete cartoon," defendants who skipped court were rarely caught - and went unpunished if they were. They were simply given a new date to show up for court.

To remedy that, the system on April 16, 2012, opened up Bench Warrant Court, presided over by Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr.

Before the court got up and running, McCaffery, a former top judge in Municipal Court, held an at times orientation session with judges, court officials, prosecutors, and defense lawyers. The room was packed.

According to participants, the defense bar appealed for a delay in the start, saying it needed time to get the word out to clients.

"Don't you tell your clients they must appear or face consequences?" McCaffery replied, the participants said.

McCaffery did not respond to a request for comment last week.

During the hearings, prosecutors and defense lawyers debate whether defendants had a good reason to skip their court dates. Since the court began, Waters and a handful of backup judges have held brief contempt-of-court hearings in Courtroom 403 of the Criminal Justice Center for an estimated 14,000 defendants and jailed about a third.

Some of the defendants come before them after they turn themselves in. But most have been arrested on new charges by Philadelphia police or picked up by the court's own small warrant unit.

Under Pennsylvania law, Waters can impose a maximum sentence of six months for contempt of court. In fact, he has typically imposed a sentence of five days.

"The idea is not to come in with a hammer to send people to incarceration unnecessarily," Waters said last week. "The idea is to impact the system, not to punish individuals. The goal was to solve the problem. The goal to some degree was to change the culture."

There seems little doubt that this happened faster than anyone expected.

According to figures compiled by Chadwick and courts research analyst Jaime S. Henderson, Philadelphia judges issued 1,499 bench warrants demanding the arrest of defendants who skipped court in March 2012 - the last month before the crackdown began.

In March of this year, they issued 831 such arrest warrants, a decrease of 45 percent.

After falling to record lows, the number of inmates held in Philadelphia jails has climbed back dramatically.

There were about 8,900 inmates locked up last week in the county system, an increase of 1,400 from two years ago. City officials had worked hard to reduce crowding, pushing through legislation to ship many inmates to state prisons.

The recent increase has prompted civil-liberties lawyers to revive a dormant federal lawsuit contending that conditions in city prisons are inhumane, especially the growing use of "triple-celling."

Chadwick, the court system consultant, said he doubted that Bench Warrant Court was driving the increase.

While Waters had imposed jail terms for contempt on about 3,400 inmates, the terms were brief - typically just the five days. On any given day, Chadwick said, research showed that only about 42 prisoners were locked up simply for being fugitives.

While conceding the issue was difficult to quantify, others said the bench-warrant program had had a real impact on prison population.

Tom Innes, a lawyer with the Defender Association, which represents people too poor to hire a defense lawyer, pointed out that Waters also resets bail for defendants on the underlying case. The inability to pay the higher bail has kept many defendants behind bars for far longer than the contempt sentence, critics say.

"In addition to the contempt sentence, Waters routinely raises the bail on the people who come before him," Innes said. "So there's a double whammy."

But Waters said he reserved tough treatment for those facing "significant criminal charges" or for inveterate fugitives.

Apart from the Bench Warrant Court, the district attorney's aggressive GunStat program - in which prosecutors are seeking high bail and longer sentences for those awaiting trial on gun crimes or convicted of them - appears to be driving prison population.

Louis Giorla, the prison system commissioner, declined comment for this article.

Gerald J. Williams, an attorney for inmates suing the city, said he had no quarrel with the policy objectives.

"It's good to call people to account who have illegal guns, and it's good to call to account people who defy the court's authority by not showing up," he said.

But the problem, he said, "is that we have only so much space in which we can detain human beings. And we have far exceeded that in Philadelphia."

Prison issues aside, Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield said one result of the crackdown was clear: Victims and witnesses could now have more confidence that trials would take place - and not "have to come back repeatedly to see justice done in their case."


Contact Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

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