Imagine going to the mailbox to find a notice saying that you owe tens of thousands of dollars to the courts and you’ll be locked up if you don’t pay.
John, Mary, and Lawrence* don’t have to imagine it. All three were shocked and scared when they received notices from the Philadelphia courts threatening arrest, driver’s license suspension, and referrals to collections for alleged court debts of tens of thousands of dollars. John received a notice threatening arrest because he supposedly owed $10,000 to the courts. Mary received threatening phone calls from a collection agency—and a notice that her public assistance would be cut off—if she didn’t pay an alleged debt of more than $40,000. Lawrence was told he owed more than $150,000.
Seeking help from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) where I am an attorney, John asked: “I was never convicted of anything—how can I owe any money, let alone thousands of dollars?”
Thus began a 4-year advocacy campaign by CLS and many allies to stop the Philadelphia courts from harassing the city’s poorest residents.
In the fall of 2010, the Philadelphia courts undertook an effort to collect an estimated $1.5 billion in “criminal debt,” including forfeited bail, supervision fees, restitution, and fines and costs going back to the 1970s. No effort had ever been made to collect these monies before.
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Without investigating whether the debts were accurate, and relying solely on an error-ridden computer database, the courts sent notices in 2011 to more than 320,000 Philadelphians, or roughly 1 in 5 of the city’s residents. This effort made about as much sense as trying to get blood from a stone: by the court’s own estimation, at least 70 percent of the individuals being chased for old debts had no means to pay, since they were very low-income, unemployed, elderly or disabled.
The lion’s share of the alleged debts stemmed from forfeited bail judgments—penalties that are automatically assessed when defendants fail to show up for a court date. (It didn’t matter if an individual had a good reason for missing court, returned to court soon after, or had a case that resulted in a non-conviction—sizable judgments were assessed despite such circumstances.) The cost of missing a single court date ran as high as $100,000.
Because the Philadelphia courts had never previously taken action to collect these assessments, most individuals had no knowledge of owing any money. Indeed upon completing probation, many people were told by probation officers that their debts had been paid. Yet decades later, scores of low-income Philadelphians suddenly received phone calls or letters that threatened substantial collection fees—on top of what was allegedly owed—unless payments were made promptly. Hundreds of individuals sought legal help from CLS.
In many of these cases, individuals faced large bail forfeitures despite having missed court for reasons like hospitalization or being in prison. Court files were frequently missing or lacking any documentation to substantiate the alleged debts; some files even reflected that the debts were incorrect. Most CLS clients were able to get their judgments reduced or eliminated altogether—more than $1 million in bail judgments were eliminated for our impoverished clients.
In some cases, however, the court’s rulings still left people with thousands of dollars of debt. CLS appealed, arguing that the Philadelphia courts’ debt collection practices violated the law governing the forfeiture of bail. While we were not successful in the appellate courts, our litigation did bring further attention to these unjust collection practices.
Our work on this issue also introduced us to Philadelphians who became the faces and leaders of our campaign to reform the collection process and to implement due process standards. We also built a dynamic coalition of advocates and other stakeholders, including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Defender Association, local social service providers, and others who worked directly with the communities that were being chased for these debts. We met with representatives of the Philadelphia courts, the Mayor, and other state and city policymakers, advocating not only against an unjust policy of trying to make the poorest residents of the city bear the burden of funding the financially strapped courts, but also that these collection efforts were penny-wise and pound-foolish—it cost more to fund this approach than the city could ever hope to recoup from its lowest-income residents.
Additionally, CLS engaged in a large public education campaign to bring local, national, and even international attention to this issue. We also helped University of Pennsylvania law students produce a documentary film that was influential in putting a face on the negative consequences of the courts’ practices.
On September 30, 2014, the city and the courts finally decided that bail judgments entered prior to March 4, 2010 would no longer be collected, effectively writing off nearly four decades of alleged debts. Upon learning of the decision, one CLS client broke down, relieved, saying, “I just wanted to move on with my life.”
Indeed hundreds of thousands of low-income Philadelphians can now move forward with their lives, including many who are now eligible for expungement of their criminal records and pardons, neither of which was available to anyone owing criminal debt.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s criminal debt collection efforts are not unique. In a growing nationwide trend, states and localities desperate to close budget gaps have increasingly turned to fines and fees to fund their law enforcement and court systems. Ferguson, Missouri offers perhaps the most widely noted example, with the city relying on municipal court fines to make up 20 percent of its budget in 2013.
As the conversation about criminal justice reform continues in states across the country, reform of counterproductive state and local criminal debt policies—and the modern day debtors’ prisons they can create—is an essential piece of the puzzle.
*These names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals.
Author’s note: If you want to start a campaign to end unjust court collection efforts in your community, contact Suzanne Young at SYoung@clsphila.org, or 215-981-3700.