Eliminating Fee Helps Open Courts to Poor Philadelphians

Last week, Philadelphia courts took some steps towards increasing access to justice for low-income people who are looking to dispute the bail forfeitures — money owed for violating the conditions of bail by failing to appear in court — which the city has levied against them. Courts have, until further notice, eliminated the filing fee for bail petitions. They have also streamlined the procedure for bail forfeiture hearings.

Philadelphia courts have imposed an aggressive criminal justice debt collections policy on thousands of city residents over the last two years, often without valid records to substantiate the debts being pursued. Bail forfeitures represent a significant portion of the alleged debts the city is after.

Filing for indigence to waive court fees is not permitted for petitions for bail hearings in Philadelphia. Until now, former defendants who wanted to dispute their bail forfeitures needed to pay $12.50 per case to file a petition. This amount may not seem large, but many low-income people have been affected by the collection of forfeited bail; and for those living on public benefits, or those with multiple bail judgments to contest, the filing fee is a significant barrier to going to court. Community Legal Services, a group working specifically with low-income clients, has seen many individuals saddled with debts that are not actually owed, for example due to cases of mistaken identity by courts, or collection of debts that have been previously waived. Thus, it is especially important that poor people in Philadelphia have access to hearings to seek remission or reduction of the bail judgments against them.

In addition to the elimination of the filing fee, Philadelphia courts have taken steps to streamline the procedure for bail remissions and reductions. Once petitions are filed, they will be reviewed on paper and the court will issue an order without a hearing. Former defendants wishing to challenge the order can then request a hearing. While this process may expedite the courts’ review of petitions, it creates a risky situation for people whose court files and prison documents have been lost by the city. Evelyn Piner, a 53-year-old woman on public assistance, cannot prove she was incarcerated during an alleged missed court appearance because the city prison system’s documents for that period were destroyed by water damage. An expedited “on paper” review might disadvantage such folks.

To prevent people from being unfairly punished for the city’s faulty bookkeeping, this new streamlined bail petition procedure should result in an automatic erasure of bail judgments in any case where the city cannot produce court files to back up its charges. Also, people like Ms. Piner whose cases date before 1991, but who say they were incarcerated at the time, should have their bail vacated. If these people have no opportunity to access the prison records that could reduce their bail, they should not be summarily saddled with hundreds of dollars in debt.