Some 300 fugitives have faced a new, tougher punishment in the latest change for the Philadelphia criminal justice system in the more than two years since an investigative project by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The newspaper portrayed the courts as having one of the nation’s highest fugitive rates and one of the lowest conviction rates for violent crime. A new Bench Warrant Court has been established to go after fugitives. Judge Joseph Waters has handed out 300 brief jail terms since the 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 word of the crackdown is getting out. In the three weeks since the program started, judges have been handing out markedly fewer bench warrants for missing defendants. The trend 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. A skeptical note came from Bradley Bridge of the Defender Association, which represents most of the 60,000 arrested yearly, those too poor to hire a 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.