It’s been well over a decade since Jose, 36, of North Philly, last tangled with the law. In 1997, he was convicted of possessing narcotics with intent to distribute and served a year in prison. Now, unemployed for the last four months, he is focused on the struggle to find a new job and support a wife and two kids attending Catholic school.
So, Jose was puzzled this summer when phone calls began rolling in from a bill collector, telling him he owed more than $6,000 in fines dating back to that 1997 incident. It was the first he’s heard of it, he says.
“They said, ‘If you don’t pay, we can arrest you and you have to pay $6.75 a day for your arrest until you pay this fine,’” Jose says.
Jose, it turns out, is one of an estimated 400,000 people who have been or could soon be targeted by an aggressive campaign by the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania — the Philadelphia Courts — to collect decades-old criminal debt, an estimated $1.5 billion in forfeited bail, fees, fines and restitution dating back to 1971. With Mayor Michael Nutter’s energetic blessing, the court contracted collection agencies to take in the debt. And the court appears to be making preparations to jail people for nonpayment.
To Jose, it feels like being dragged back into a world he long since put behind him. “There should be a statute of limitations,” he says. “After you stay away from crime for so long and they bring up stuff that happened so many years ago — it’s like they’re opening the case again.”
Worse, critics point out that such cases are drawing on records kept by the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, the row office that managed court administration until it was abolished in 2010 — precisely because it was notorious for horrendous record-keeping. Now, they say, the court is pursuing a policy of collect first, ask questions later.
“The courts’ poor record-keeping of the last several decades is well known,” says Rebecca Vallas, a Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) attorney who represents some alleged debtors and is asking the city to reform collections efforts. She says the burden of proof should be on the court. “They should not be pressuring people to pay without first making sure that the debts are accurate.”
Take Brendan, who asked to use a pseudonym (others asked that only their first names be used, some for fear of complicating their dealings with the court, others to avoid publicizing their convictions). The court says Brendan has failed to pay any of a $1,189.91 debt stemming from a 2005 intoxicated-driving conviction. But Brendan is lucky and exceptionally well organized: He showed City Paper a Western Union money-order receipt from March 9, 2006, cashed by the First Judicial District. Though Brendan has a record of his payment, the court does not. Brendan wants to seek a pardon to clean up his record — something he cannot do with outstanding debt to his name.
Part of the problem, says Vallas, is the court lacks paper records for many of the debts recorded in its computer system.
A line of people waiting outside court room 1104 at the Criminal Justice Center at 13th and Filbert streets last week echo that complaint: Years or decades later, the court is demanding that former defendants pay money they say they do not owe. And they usually have no legal counsel to aid them.
“They say I owe $8,000 starting in 1989,” says Chris, 40, who has been in and out of trouble his whole life. He says that he already paid, but doesn’t know if he can prove it. “It’s on me to say that I paid … in 1989. I’ve got the burden of proof.”
The fees in question are accrued throughout the judicial process, notes Robert, 26, from West Philadelphia. “Crime-lab fees. Booking fees,” he says. “Why the fuck do I have to pay for you booking me? Like I asked to get locked up.” He was convicted of possession with intent to distribute, and says he was erroneously charged $105 in late fees — for a payment due while he was behind bars.
The court first contracted Xerox to run collection efforts, for a fee as large as 25 percent of the debt, paid by the debtor. The contract with Xerox ended on Monday, and the court has now retained GC Services Limited Partnership and Harris & Harris, Ltd.
Robert and others say the reason is transparent: Philadelphia, like many governments in fiscal crisis, is looking to poor criminal defendants to make up the shortfall — what critics describe as a regressive backdoor tax. Nationwide, an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of criminal defendants are poor.
John, 30, from Tacony, says he was recently informed, for the first time, that he owes $5,257.35 in forfeited bail for a case he beat in 2004. “The city’s broke,” he says. “They need the money. That’s all this is.”
And this may be merely the prelude to something much harsher: The court appears to be preparing to unveil contempt hearings that could jail debtors for nonpayment.
“Many people have been told by the debt collectors that they can ‘push a button and send you to jail,’” says Vallas. “Now, the courts want to actually make good on that threat. Do we really want imprisonment to be a tool for debt collection in Philadelphia?”
Letters from the First Judicial District instruct recipients that if they “owe fees, fines and costs and have the financial ability to pay, a contempt hearing or violation of probation hearing (if appropriate) could be scheduled by the Court.” Last week, the court schedule listed numerous “Payment Plan Criminal Contempt Hearings” — hearings that the courts now deny ever took place.
Dominic Rossi, a deputy court administrator overseeing collections, refused to answer questions submitted by email, providing a prepared statement and adding only that the courts “do not currently have a Payment Plan Contempt Hearing process.” When asked if the courts would answer specific questions as to the court’s preparations to launch contempt hearings, CP was instructed to file a Right to Know request. Contempt for failure to pay fines and costs could carry a sentence of nearly six months.
“The whole idea of threatening to put people in jail for failing to pay $35 (or less) per month is medieval,” says Pennsylvania ACLU senior staff attorney Mary Catharine Roper, pointing out the significantly larger cost of locking up debtors. “In the meantime, the city’s jails are bursting at the seams, and already the subject of federal lawsuits for overcrowding. What part of this makes financial sense?”
It is unclear whether the court is tracking how much current collection efforts cost.
Civil-rights advocates are fighting back against the collections. CLS argues that, to recoup forfeited bail, state law requires the court to prove that defendants who failed to appear in court did so both purposefully and in a manner that “prejudiced,” or a had a negative impact on, proceedings. Furthermore, public defender Bradley Bridge says that the city will have to provide legal counsel to anyone charged with contempt, at a potentially high cost to the courts.
“They’re going to have to appoint lawyers for indigents, and the vast majority of these people are indigents,” says Bridge. “I’m not sure it financially makes sense to appoint lawyers to try to get money from people who don’t have any money. People have, by and large, not paid their fines and costs because they don’t have any money.”
CLS is also asking the courts to limit collections efforts to debts not older than five years, citing the disordered records. The court’s statement, however, emphasized that they are collecting the money on the city’s behalf. And it is up to the city, says Rossi, to let go of old debts.
“The city is working with the First Judicial District to collect millions of dollars of legacy bail judgments,” said mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald in a statement. “And the First Judicial District is employing the appropriate tools under the law to achieve that goal.”
However, the collections effort appears to have been developed not as carefully considered public policy but as a response to the Inquirer’s 2009 investigation, “Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied.” The series portrayed a dysfunctional court system that not only failed to collect debt but let criminals off the hook. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who declined to speak to CP, and Justice Seamus McCaffery created a “blue ribbon” panel in response. The crackdown also included the creation of a Bench Warrant Court that jails people who fail to appear in court, a measure credited with contributing to the recent overcrowding crisis in city jails. In February 2011, the First Judicial District announced it would aggressively pursue the estimated 400,000-plus Philadelphians with criminal debts.
The collections effort, according to the court statement, aims to renew public respect for the court after decades of scofflaw behavior. But, given the court’s shoddy record-keeping, that may not be a realistic outcome. “It seems to me that, if not rushed,” says Bridge, the effort “is ill-considered.”
The city, says Jose, is trying to make him pay for errors that occurred because the “city hired workers that didn’t do their jobs.” If he had known about the debts 15 years ago, he says, he would have long since paid them off. Jose was initially put on a $40-a-month payment plan he could not afford, which CLS later got reduced to $10. Jose will be paying off that debt to society, for a nonviolent drug crime he committed at age 18, in monthly installments until he is 89 years old.