Philadelphia Courts are Running a Financial Scheme That Profits Off The Poor
And padding city and state coffers with millions of dollars.
The night before New Year’s Eve last year, Wayne Styles was on his way to a hip Philadelphia jazz club. But he never made it downtown. Two white police officers pulled over Styles, who is Black. According to the police report, the reason for the stop was that his windows were tinted too dark. His front windows were down because he was airing out his car, so the officers could see the color of his skin. The stop did not only dampen the evening, it spurred a months-long legal saga.
While Styles, a 52-year-old security guard employed by the city, shuffled through his wallet for his driver’s license, the officer saw his permit to carry a firearm. He asked if Styles was carrying; he was. The officer inspected his gun and saw that the serial number had been scratched.
“I let him know that that gun was stolen in the past and that it was court ordered for me to have my gun back,” Styles said. The thief had damaged the serial number, but when the gun was recovered, the court decided it was legible enough and ordered it returned to him.
Not swayed, the officer arrested Styles on federal felony charges of possessing a firearm with an altered serial number and brought him to the precinct. There, by video, a judge slammed him with a $25,000 bail. He couldn’t immediately post the required $2,500 so was hauled to jail.
One day and four phone calls later, Styles found someone who had that kind of money: his longtime friend Alexander William, a retired sanitation worker. “I don’t have a lot of money, but it wasn’t no problem,” William said. “He’s a good friend of mine.”
On Feb. 20, when Styles finally had a court hearing, the charges were tossed. In theory, bail is used to ensure that a defendant doesn’t flee. But in Philadelphia, like many other jurisdictions, the court keeps a portion of that deposit as a “processing fee.” It is a full 30 percent in Philadelphia—whether a person is convicted or not. So, when William got his money back, it was short $750. “They always told me they kept a little bit of it, but I didn’t know how much,” William said. In effect, he paid hundreds of dollars for his friend’s wrongful arrest.
Unlike most cases, the judge ordered the entire bail be returned. Nevertheless, it seemed as though his financial loss would be like other defendants: The courts stalled for months, but finally returned the $750 this week, several days after an inquiry by this reporter. The First Judicial District of Pennsylvania declined to comment on the delay.
“We simply don’t believe that there should be a charge for your freedom,” said Mark Houldin, policy director at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “Usually it takes a lot for our clients to get enough money together. Keeping a percent of that results in a tax on people in poverty.”
The bail fee is just one small part of a larger financial scheme that generates revenue from the pockets of people caught up in the criminal justice system. Any conviction in Philadelphia includes a bill with items such as “Commonwealth Cost,” “County Court Cost,” and the “Judicial Computer Project.” Typical tallies range from $200 to over $1000 according to a recent analysis by Harvard Law School’s National Criminal Justice Debt Initiative. When a bill lingers for longer than two years, it is handed off to a private collection agency that adds a 25 percent surcharge, according to a contract obtained by The Appeal through a public records request.
“Because jurisdictions are so cash strapped, anything that can be passed along to the defendant is passed along,” said Cherise Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a nonprofit based in Rockville, Maryland. “Essentially, you’re paying for access to justice.”
The bills handed out by Philadelphia criminal courts in 2016, the most recent data available, added up to about $34 million. This total includes victim restitution, but those payments only accounted for a quarter of the total. The largest portion, 69 percent, came from court fees, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
This pot of money helps pad a few different budgets. In 2017, 29 percent went to the commonwealth and 62 percent went to the city. The judicial district’s projected budget for next year depends on about $31 million from court fines and fees, nearly one-third of the total $110 million it will take to run the civil and criminal courts.
Philadelphia is “not the worst of the worst” said Mitali Nagrecha, Director of Harvard Law School’s National Criminal Justice Debt Initiative. The city’s judges don’t jail people for getting behind in payments, she noted, a practice that is a problem in other jurisdictions across the country, including other parts of Pennsylvania. However, “[w]e’ve also learned that in Philly court costs are typically imposed without regard to financial circumstances,” she said. “This is surprising as jurisdictions across the country are reforming, including by enacting laws to require consideration of ability to pay up front.”
While court debt doesn’t lead to jail time in Philadelphia, it does prevent record expungement. So, people who can’t pay continue to be followed by their past convictions in the eyes of landlords or employers who run background checks.
The city is leaning toward nixing the bail fee, which delivered more than $2.9 million to its general fund in fiscal 2018. The 2019 budget, which passed in early June, accounts for loss of this revenue, but to date people are still being charged. Mike Dunn, a spokesman for the mayor, wrote in a statement that administration officials and the judicial district are having “positive conversations” about eliminating the fee, “though a number of procedural matters need to take place before any change can occur.”
Keeping a slice of a bail deposit is not unique to Philadelphia courts. It’s relatively common, though the amount varies. For comparison, in New York City the courts keep the same percentage as Philly, 3 percent of the bond set—but only when the defendant is found guilty.
New Orleans is perhaps the most notorious jurisdiction for relying on “user-funded” revenue, meaning money drawn from people caught up in the justice system. Last year, a federal judge ruled that this created a conflict of interest for the judges. “It is the unfortunate result of the financing structure, established by governing law, that forces the Judges to generate revenue from the criminal defendants they sentence. Of course, the Judges would not be in this predicament if the state and city adequately funded [the criminal court],” Judge Sarah Vance of the Eastern District of Louisiana wrote.
Unlike the bail deposit fee, most of the charges assessed in Philadelphia are not in the purview of the city, but are mandated by state law. However, Andrew Christy, a legal fellow at the ACLU of Pennsylvania who has been investigating court debt, took a close look at that statute and said he was surprised to find that judges are by law allowed to assess fees and reduce them according to a person’s ability to pay. “To the extent to whether there was any doubt before, the legislature changed that in 2010 to make it clear that courts can change costs,” Christy said. “But it isn’t done in practice.”
A Pennsylvania state bill would require judges to consider a person’s ability to pay when levying court costs and fines—not including bail. The measure would allow judges to consider nonmonetary penalties such as community service, or to entirely waive debt. The bill is backed by four Republicans and five Democrats.
Since the pernicious effects of criminal justice debt were scrutinized in the Department of Justice’s scathing 2015 report on Ferguson, Missouri, jurisdictions across the country have been giving their systems a closer look. Some are starting or revamping procedures for judges to assess whether a person is able to pay a fine or fee. Christy is working with the Philadelphia public defender’s office to train lawyers in how to argue for reduced costs in motions. These efforts have shown promising results. Public defender Alison Lipsky was the first to take up the cause: In two cases the judge waived all of her clients’ fees, and a third is in appeals. She estimates that about 40 percent of her clients would be eligible.
“For those individuals that have significant mental health or disability [challenges], the court costs absolutely should be waived,” Lipsky said. “They’re never going to be able to make those payments.”
Styles is happy that his bail deposit saga is finished, and that his friend was fully repaid. But he’s still dealing with the aftermath of his wrongful arrest: Even though he wasn’t convicted, his arrest still appears on his publicly available criminal record. “With this on my record, it doesn’t look good,” he said. “People don’t know the whole story.”
This article is a co-publication with Philadelphia Weekly, and is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among 19 news organizations, focused on Philadelphia’s push toward economic justice.