Many Philadelphians don’t know they owe city’s courts money until it’s too late

There are more than 300,000 Philadelphians with criminal court fines and costs and many don’t even know it.

To inform the public about the accruement of court costs and how to minimize them, state Sen. Shirley Kitchen and Community Legal Services (CLS) hosted a seminar entitled “Culture of Collection: The New Court Payment System” at the Philadelphia Recovery Community Center on Wednesday.

Kitchen said she decided to do the seminar after several people came to her office with letters stating they owed money. Because it was a city issue, she was not familiar with it and brought in the CLS who were also getting an influx of questions about court costs, too.

The seminar detailed the criminal justice council’s aggressive push to be compensated for $1.5 billion owed by Philadelphians who did not pay their court costs as far back as the seventies.

Sharon Dietrich, CLS’s managing attorney for employment and public benefits, said 70 percent of the people that the courts are trying to collect from are low-income. Many of them are either unemployed or receiving public assistance, she noted.

The problem with the court system’s recent push is that payment notices are being sent to the person’s last known address, which may not be where they currently reside.

In addition to that, many people are learning of fees about which they were never informed. These include a supervision fee, which is administered anytime someone is put on probation or parole, collection fees and forfeited bail fee. These fines can range from $25 up to 100 percent of bail money.

“They shouldn’t act like it’s in collections if people say they never got a notice,” Dietrich said. “I think from a broader system perspective, they ought to try to get updated software to track people down and try to notify them and give them a chance to resolve it before they send it to collections.”

Because there is no statute of limitations on this type of debt, negligence to pay court fines can result in multiple actions such as wage garnishment, liens on property and denial for public benefits.

CLS attorneys said this is best illustrated by the case of Rufus Taylor, 36, who is believed to owe tens of thousands of dollars for failing to appear in a 1994 case, which was his last run-in with the law. Taylor is a single father of two young boys and because of his unpaid court costs, he was denied benefits and no source of income for his family until recently.

There are also other instances where bail money will be taken away in effort to resolve court debts.

During the presentation, Dietrich and her colleague Rebecca Vallas, stressed the importance of being proactive to learn about legal financial obligations, apply for payment plan conferences and try to reduce or eliminate bail.

“Unless you try to put it forward as an issue, they are not going to look for the files for themselves,” Dietrich said. “People need to try to protect themselves by looking into their own situation.”

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