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“Robo-signing” Criminal Justice Debt in Philadelphia

Philadelphia launched an aggessive drive to collect criminal justice debt from its residents, including from some who may not owe anything.

  • Meghna Philip
February 24, 2012

Over the past two years, Philadelphia courts have initiated an unprecedented, aggressive drive to collect criminal justice debt from its residents. These efforts have targeted more than 320,000 people — roughly 1 in 5 Philadelphians — who allegedly owe over $1.5 billion in debt stemming from prior involvement in the criminal justice system. The debts the courts are pursuing date as far back as the 1970s. Documentation is sparse, and the city may be going after thousands of people who do not actually owe this debt.

A Philadelphia Daily News report introduced us to one of the victims of this process, Evelyn Piner, a 53-year-old Philly resident who received a notification demanding $900 in forfeited bail for skipping a court hearing in 1990. However, Piner was in prison serving a sentence at the time of the alleged hearing. Proving she was in prison has become near impossible, as the city prison system’s documents prior to 1991 were destroyed by water damage. Piner, on public assistance, is now saddled with hundreds of dollars in debt that she has little hope of paying.

Piner’s experience, ironically, represents the exact sort of systemic dysfunction that Philadelphia has been trying to correct through its Criminal Courts “Reform Initiative.” The courts launched this initiative in 2010 in response to a series of reports by the Philadelphia Inquirer criticizing them for being in “disarray.” The reports focused in part on the broken Office of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, which, with a $4.5 million annual budget, was responsible for maintaining court records, staffing courtrooms, and collecting legal financial obligations from defendants. The Office was faulted by government auditors for its mishandling of millions of dollars in bail, fines, and court fees, and for its poor and inaccurate maintenance of records. In April 2010, the city dissolved the Office and took over its functions.

But things did not immediately improve. A July 2011 Interim Report on the Reform Initiative reveals some serious flaws in the city’s takeover of the Office. At that time, the courts planned to “update files” with more “accurate information” and “[establish] policies and procedures to ensure the accurate accounting of funds due to the court and to defendants.” The courts expected the review “to be completed within six to twelve months." Yet the report describes the “aggressive program” of collections that courts began in the summer of 2010, just after the city takeover.

The new collections effort thus used the same unreliable records and operated under the same lack of transparency and accountability as the system it sought to replace. It is no surprise, then, that courts are going after people whose debts either don’t exist, or have previously been waived. Courts have also sent notice letters to decades-old addresses, tacking on significant added collection fees when no one responds. In addition, due to mistaken identities, individuals have been charged with other people’s debt. Advocates have likened the corrupt process to the robo-signing of mortgages.

As the Brennan Center has emphasized, the collection of criminal justice debt must be reformed across the country. But reforms must be fiscally sensible and must focus on removing the barriers to re-entry that criminal justice debt can create. Philadelphia’s so-called “reforms” have merely transferred the costs of a broken system onto the backs of an overwhelmingly poor and vulnerable population. It is one of the most extreme examples of the disturbing trend of cash-strapped jurisdictions looking to criminal justice debt as a means to generate revenue.

The ACLU and Community Legal Services of Philadelphia have seen low-income clients suffer as a consequence of the new collections regime. Courts have the ability to garnish wages, and put liens on people’s homes. The government has kicked people who owe court costs off welfare. Collection agencies have inaccurately threatened people with jail for failing to pay.

Philadelphia is not the first city to try aggressively collecting from indigent defendants. After a Brennan Center report highlighted the fiscal insensibility of such tactics in Florida, Leon County closed its collections court and simultaneously cancelled approximately 8,000 writs of arrest for individuals owing fees. In Orange County, Florida outstanding writs issued over a 3-year period were canceled for individuals without verifiable or locatable permanent addresses. Advocates have called for Philadelphia courts to waive a large number of the debts for which they lack adequate records — perhaps everything owed before 2005. This is a necessary first step the Philadelphia courts should take to repair the damage dealt by its irresponsible “reforms.”