Philadelphia collects court debt decades later

A dilapidated prison cell at Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, PA. The prison was notorious from the time it opened in 1829 right up until the last inmate left in 1971. Today it is a historic site and museum.

Rufus Taylor is one of 300,000 people in debt to Philadelphia’s courts.

Last year, Rufus Taylor was having trouble paying his bills. As a father of two young girls and a newborn, getting by is a struggle, but add to that a criminal record and his employment options are limited at best. He went to try to collect public assistance, but was denied because of an outstanding financial debt. When he pursued the details, he discovered that he owed $41,897.70 to the courts of Philadelphia.

“I did my time, I did everything y’all requested,” he explains, “You don’t let me know none of this until after I’m off parole?”

Rufus Taylor believes that he paid off all of the various fees and fines that he owed when he completed his parole in 2008, after 14 years in and out of prison. So he was shocked to hear that he owed anything at all.

It turns out that his debt came about as part of a retroactive fix. Since 2010, the courts of Philadelphia started actively collecting from people like Taylor, on debts that date back to the early 1970s. The courts are now seeking to collect $1.5 billion from an estimated 300,000 people.

That’s 1 of every 5 in a city with a million and a half people.

Criminal justice debt

In the United States, it’s increasingly common for people to owe “criminal justice debt” upon release from prison. It’s not simply a debt to the victim, but also to the courts. It might be $50 for a urine test, or $25 towards a victims’ fund or $100 for some unspecified administrative fee. And in Philadelphia, you may also owe money for skipping out on court dates.

Lots of money.

A billion dollars of this debt is from “forfeited bail” (see chart above) that went uncollected for decades. Since the early 1970s, the agency responsible for collecting debts to the court kept no digital records; they didn’t track the money owed, and they didn’t collect it.

In 2010, after a stinging series in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the agency was finally shut down as part of a massive reform of the city’s courts.

Running the courts like a business

Forfeiting bail, essentially skipping out on bail without paying, not only created a system where offenders fled the court system without penalty, but it also contributed to the courts’ financial woes.

Judge Pamela Dembe, President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, explains that part of the impetus of this debt collection is financial necessity. Immediately after the recession, $15 million were pulled from her operating budget.

Either the city has to take money out of the rest of the budget so you don’t get the trash picked up, or you don’t get the recreation centers open. Or they don’t give it to us and you don’t have courts open five days a week.

With heavy caseloads and full dockets, many courts across the country are facing the same dilemma: how do you fund an overloaded criminal justice system?

Justice Seamus McCaffery, a Justice on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, wonders if the old model of a tax-based budget is outdated.

“In my opinion,” he explains, “We should be able to run these courts like businesses now.”

Payment plan

Earlier this year, Rufus Taylor found a legal aid lawyer to dispute his debt, and he won his appeal, sort of. The court vacated most of the $41,897.70 debt, bringing it down to about $4,000 that he can pay off on a monthly plan. But he doesn’t believe that this is about justice or reform.

“It’s nothing other than money,” he says. “It’s not about fair trial, it’s not about fair judgments, it’s money.”

The courts do not expect to collect anywhere near the amount owed to them. In a 2011 update on the court’s reform initiative, they acknowledged that “there’s a 70 percent unemployment rate among defendants” and that a large part of the debt “will never be collected.”

For Rufus Taylor, having this debt hanging over his head has been stressful, not to mention crippling for his credit score. “Can’t buy a car, can’t get a loan, can’t get a mortgage,” he says of his debt, “It keeps me from everything.”

Earlier this month, Rufus Taylor and his legal aid lawyer, Sharon Dietrich, of Community Legal Services, appealed Taylor’s debt to Judge Dembe for a second time.

Taylor’s case is one of four that Dietrich is challenging on a number of procedural problems, including the age of the debts and what she sees as a lack of evidence in many of the cases. She expects Superior Court to hear the case in the New Year.

This story is excerpted from a BBC World Service radio documentary and is also part of The Cost of Crime, a multimedia investigation into the financial repercussions of imprisonment. Thanks to Amanda Hickman for her work collecting and presenting the data.

About the author

Amanda Aronczyk is a public radio reporter and producer.

Rufus Taylor is one of 300,000 people in debt to Philadelphia’s courts.

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