Concerned about what he called a “fugitive crisis” in Philadelphia, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter has invited top court officials who administer the city’s bail system and track fugitives to a hearing Tuesday at the National Constitution Center.
Specter said yesterday that the number of fugitives who have jumped bail in the city – at last count, about 47,000 – was unacceptable. “You can’t try cases without defendants,” he said.
Fugitives also owe the city $1 billion in forfeited bail, and the city’s efforts to collect that money have been almost nonexistent.
The Senate subcommittee hearing is the second called by Specter after an Inquirer series documented a court system in crisis – with low conviction rates, an epidemic of witness intimidation, a serious fugitive problem, and a large number of cases tossed out of court each year without any decision on the merits.
The newspaper’s analysis of Philadelphia court data from 2007 and 2008 found that one in every three defendants failed to appear for at least one court hearing and that federal comparative studies rank Philadelphia and Essex County, N.J. – home of Newark – as having the nation’s worst fugitive rates.
A key witness at the 9:30 a.m. hearing is expected to be Clerk of Quarter Sessions Vivian T. Miller, whose office collects bail and oversees bail forfeitures by fugitives. Miller, 73, who is paid $110,000 a year, has been at the center of a chorus of criticism in recent weeks.
The chief justice of Pennsylvania, Ronald D. Castille, last week ordered the courts to absorb most of the functions of the clerk’s office, even as Miller, an elected official, remains in place.
Also last week, the Committee of Seventy, the government watchdog group, urged the city to abolish the clerk’s office, which it described as “mismanaged.”
And just yesterday, City Controller Alan Butkovitz issued a critical audit of Miller’s office for failing to properly account for the $1 billion fugitives owe.
Specter also has asked District Attorney Seth Williams to testify, along with David Preski, a top court administrator who oversees the warrant unit charged with apprehending fugitives, and John Patrignani, acting U.S. marshal for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The marshal’s office oversees a regional task force charged with apprehending the city’s most-wanted criminals.