Court charges them with debt — but do they owe?

IOM's Holly Otterbein reports on efforts to collect more than $1 billion in court costs owed to taxpayers ... and how not everyone whose being asked for the money necessarily owes.


EVELYN PINER is stuck in a Catch-22.

Last year, she got a letter from the First Judicial District, Philadelphia's court system, saying she owed $900 in forfeited bail for skipping a court hearing in early 1990.

It was the first she'd heard of the debt, she says. Plus, it didn't make sense: She couldn't have owed money, she says, because she was in prison at the time of the hearing.

The feisty Piner, 53, looked for prison records to prove it — but found that all the prison system's documents prior to 1991 had been destroyed by water damage.

A court administrator told Piner that her fines couldn't be completely waived unless she could document that she was incarcerated, her lawyer says. But there is no way for her to do that. So she's stuck with hundreds of dollars in debt — a lot of money for someone on public assistance.

"They telling us to come to court, prove it," she says. "How can you prove it when you ain't got no records?"

Legal advocates say Piner is just one of many people being unjustly saddled with large debts by the court. The court's records are deeply flawed, they argue, but the court is proceeding with aggressive collections anyway.

Last year, court officials announced that they would go hard after debtors. This was a big shift: In 2009, the Inquirer revealed that the First Judicial District had failed to pursue $1 billion in forfeited bail for several years. More was owed in restitution and other court costs.

The debtors "owe it to the taxpayers," says Pamela Dembe, president judge of the Court of Common Pleas.

The debts had piled up, in part, because of shoddy records maintained by the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, which was charged with collecting the money back then. That office later was abolished amid controversy.

Now, the court is trying to chase down about 400,000 people who owe money from as far back as the 1970s.

Sharon Dietrich, a lawyer with Community Legal Services, says the court can't substantiate that many of those people actually owe money - because of the same poor bookkeeping that contributed to the uncollected debts in the first place. And although people with rap sheets might not seem deserving of sympathy, it's no excuse to hit them with large fines they don't owe.

"People are being charged with debt without there being adequate investigation that there really is a debt," she says.

American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Mary Catherine Roper adds that some court records are "simply wrong."

Take, for example, Leon Thomas. The 61-year-old North Philly man found out last year that he owed more than $20,000 for allegedly failing to show up for court in September 1991. Thomas, who is disabled and on public assistance, says he knew immediately that the court was wrong because he was in federal prison at the time, for bank robbery.

Indeed, after a pro-bono attorney found his prison records, the court waived all his debts, but Thomas says it "didn't want to hear nothing I had to say" until a lawyer stepped in.

There are other problems. Advocates say that the First Judicial District is sending notice letters to decades-old addresses, then tacking on collection fees when no one responds, and that a collection agency for the court inaccurately threatened people with jail if they didn't pay up.

The government has kicked people who owe court costs off welfare. And the court can put a lien on people's homes.

Roper says these consequences are steep, given how impossible it is for a lay person to navigate the court's bureaucracy. She says happy endings like Thomas' are the exception.

The system "gives no chance at all to the person without a lawyer and the person without funds," she says. "And the scary thing is, that's almost everybody."

The ACLU and Community Legal Services want the court to do a better job substantiating that people actually owe money before charging them. Advocates say thousands of the debts could be wrong.

Rebecca Vallas of Community Legal Services says confirming the debts can sometimes be done easily. Harrison Womack, who is homeless, was told he owed nearly $55,000 in various court costs. Vallas got his bill reduced by thousands of dollars after showing that he was charged twice for the same fines - which should have been evident to court administrators, Vallas says.

The ACLU and Community Legal Services also argue that a large number of debts should be waived — perhaps everything before 2005.

Judge Dembe says that isn't going to happen. She refuses to "walk away from a large amount of money owed to taxpayers." People have ducked debts for years and flouted court orders, she says.

John Goldkamp, a criminal-justice professor at Temple who studies bail collections, says he understands, politically, why the court had to pursue the debts. But he says it lacks "records that we can really count on."

Dembe acknowledges that some records are flawed. "But the fact that some of them are erroneous doesn't mean that they're all erroneous," she says.

She agrees that it was "absolutely unacceptable" that a collection agency threatened people and insists that this is no longer an issue. She also says the court is being more lenient with people who can reasonably explain that they were incarcerated, even when records are missing.

Legal advocates say they have yet to notice that particular change.

It was news to Piner, the woman who can't produce records of her incarceration because the prison system's were destroyed. She says it gives her good reason to hound it again to withdraw her fines.

Not that she needed encouragement: Last week, she dug up a recommendation letter from her former probation officer. Dating to 1993, it states that Piner was "not in any type of violation or bad standing."