Criminal defendants who failed to appear in court owe Philadelphia a staggering $1 billion, yet for decades the city has done virtually nothing to collect forfeited bail money, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. At the Inquirer’s request, court officials compiled a master list of bail debtors in the city and found that 210,000 people owe bail. This is the dismal result of a system in which court officials pay little attention to people’s incomes when imposing bail, and city lawyers do not go after people who forfeit it. It is a system that renders meaningless the threat of seizure of bail money, fueling a massive fugitive problem and leading to astronomical uncollected debt.
The problems have persisted and grown worse even though District Attorney Lynne Abraham and top court officials have tried to sound an alarm. Now, President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe of Common Pleas Court said Philadelphia’s budget crisis made the problem all the more pressing. Mayor Nutter is pushing for a $1 billion cut in the city’s five-year spending plan. “The city desperately needs the money,” Dembe said. Officials acknowledge that much of the bail money may be uncollectible, given the poverty of many defendants or those who signed for their bail. Some of the uncollected debt dates back 30 years. They say an aggressive collection strategy could pay big dividends, both in deterring fugitives and in putting money in the bank. Every day, judges order bail forfeitures in scores of criminal cases. Civil judgments are entered against most of those who owe bail debts, but most of the money never is paid.