Who deserves a Get Out of Jail card?


The latest chapter in the overhaul of the Philadelphia courts offers the best hope of stemming the city’s massive fugitive rate — a problem that not only delays and even derails the course of justice, but also makes city streets less safe.

With as many as one in three criminal defendants likely to skip court dates — and a broken bail system that does little to deter no-shows — the city at the behest of the state Supreme Court will get to work on doing a better job of determining who gets out on bail.

The initiative comes as court administrators also report that they’re making encouraging inroads with related get-tough policies.

Bail amounts are being raised in line with inflation, and a special court has been established where Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr. has been handing out short contempt sentences for defendants who skip a court appearance. In addition, the city is taking more aggressive steps to collect bail, fines, and restitution payments.

In a more problematic move, the city recently loosened the restrictions that have kept commercial bail bondsmen from operating in the city since they were run out of town amid corruption claims several decades ago. Bondsmen will have to put up less good-faith money under the new rules, thus lowering the bar to do business in the city.

Today’s commercial bail practitioners say the industry has cleaned up its unsavory practices, and they boast of having above-average records in assuring the defendants appear in court. Yet, even stipulating that there won’t be a return to the bad old days, the expansion of private bail assures that defendants, many of whom are poor, will be saddled with bail finance fees that will only exacerbate their plight.

The smarter tactic to reduce court no-shows is a new initiative to better calibrate who gets bail in the first place.

As announced last week by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille — who’s working with Justice Seamus McCaffery to address problems in the courts uncovered by a 2009 Inquirer investigative series — the complex undertaking will revise decades-old guidelines

The new criteria will help court magistrates make more accurate predictions as to which defendants pose the greatest risk of fleeing, or even getting into new trouble. The rules have long-needed updating, as their original author, Temple University criminologist John S. Goldkamp, has been urging court officials to do for some time.

In a hopeful sign, the city’s top administrative judge, Common Pleas Court Judge John W. Herron, points to enhancements in data-gathering that should make the process of calibrating no-show risks more precise.

On other fronts, new court rules are making it more likely that fewer cases will be dismissed due to technicalities or stalling tactics employed by some defense lawyers.

Still in the works is a promising proposal that could ease witness intimidation in the early stages of a criminal case by authorizing indicting grand juries to hear preliminary testimony behind closed doors.

All told, the court overhaul that will become part of Castille’s legacy will take time. But it seems to be reaching a tipping point where the reforms should stick.