By Amaris Elliott-Engel
Of the Legal Staff
For the past three years, the First Judicial District has stepped up its effort to collect on forfeited bails and other outstanding debts with the "view," as Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge John W. Herron put it in 2012, "that it's necessary to do so in order to underscore the ramifications of failing to appear for court hearings."
During a Philadelphia Bar Association panel Wednesday, Sharon Dietrich, Community Legal Services' managing attorney for employment and public benefits, said most of the debt collection efforts involve bail debt from 1988 to 1993. Dietrich said she doubts people are going to show up in court because of collection efforts related to decades-old debts. Instead, people just feel persecuted, Dietrich said.
In 2010, the FJD began to step up its efforts to collect on judgments entered on bail forfeitures for defendants who allegedly did not show up in court in the wake of heavy criticism that not enough was being done to address defendants' failures to appear in court.
Public interest attorneys don't take the position that people should not pay what they owe or that people should not have to show up for court dates, Dietrich said. But "the way it has played out in our law practice, there are issues of fairness and practicality and crushing people who already have too little to make it through one day to the next day," she said.
There is no statute of limitations on any criminal debts in Pennsylvania, and there also is very poor record-keeping by the formerly independent Clerk of Quarter Sessions, now called the Clerk of Courts and housed within the FJD, Dietrich said.
The Philadelphia Prison System also does not have records that go back before 1991, Dietrich said. Former Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Mary Achilles said restitution must be paid by criminal defendants. Restitution is very important to victims, she said. Research shows "victims will trade off prison time for restitution," Achilles said.
Achilles said she was concerned that this debt collection process might mean that the city of Philadelphia is recovering on its debts before victims get paid restitution. It was a concern echoed by a couple prosecutors attending from the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.
The panel on the topic of Philadelphia court collections was put on by the association's public interest section.
Amaris Elliott-Engel can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @AmarisTLI.