Philly courts reversing course on aggressive collections

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Philadelphia’s court system has spent the last four years trying to collect $1 billion in forfeited bail from criminal defendants dating back to the 1970s.

Now, the First Judicial District is putting the brakes on its stepped-up collections.

The courts will stop collecting bail owed before March 3, 2010, at the request of Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration. Everett Gillison, Nutter’s chief-of-staff, said the city asked the court to change tactics because the effort was expensive and the debt was largely uncollectible.

“It’s really costing us more in the short term and long term,” he said, adding that many of the defendants who owed bail were poor.

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Sharon Dietrich, an attorney for Philadelphia’s Community Legal Services, lobbied to write off the bail. She said it is unclear if some of the debts were really owed because the now-abolished Clerk of Quarter Sessions, which was in charge of collecting bail prior to April 2010, kept shoddy records. 

The First Judicial District has since taken over those duties.

“The courts really could not produce documents often verifying that these bail judgements existed,” said Dietrich. “Often, the file that they needed to prove that somebody had failed to appear in court and thus was responsible for a bail judgement were missing.”

The Nutter administration said Philadelphia’s court system will continue to aggressively collect bail forfeited since March 2010.

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