Opinion

Grappling With the City's Fugitive Problem

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Philadelphia officials recently announced a new campaign to collect the staggering amount of bail owed by defendants who have missed court dates over the last several decades. The laudable effort is designed to impose greater consequences for failure to appear in court and to produce more revenue for the city.

The millions of dollars in outstanding bail are a symptom of a larger problem: the troubling number of defendants who do not show up for their court dates. Our recent Pew Charitable Trusts study, "Philadelphia's Crowded, Costly Jails: The Search for Safe Solutions," found that about 30 percent of city defendants released before trial miss their court appearances.

These failures to appear - thousands of them every year - damage Philadelphia's criminal-justice system in many ways. They defer and sometimes prevent the delivery of justice. They discourage witnesses, who are asked to come to court again and again. They undermine public confidence.

And they cost money - lots of it. Every time someone fails to appear, court resources are wasted, and the defendant often goes free until his or her next encounter with authorities. Frequently, the individual ends up in jail, at taxpayer expense, for days, weeks, or months.

The obligation to show up in court rests with the defendant, of course. But other cities have found ways to reduce the number of no-shows.

In New York City, for example, only 16 percent of defendants miss court; in Washington, the number is 12 percent. And these cities rely on bail far less than Philadelphia does. In Washington, 85 percent of defendants are released on their own recognizance, meaning without bail, compared with only 40 percent in Philadelphia; in New York, 65 percent are released without bail.

So how can those cities use bail less and yet get defendants to show up in court more?

In determining whether to release defendants on bail, New York, Washington, and other jurisdictions rely on clear risk-assessment formulas that measure the likelihood of a defendant's showing up. The formulas take into account such factors as community ties, employment status, and previous failures to appear. They are regularly updated based on how well they work, which makes judges and magistrates more comfortable with their recommendations.

Philadelphia has a bail risk-assessment formula in place, too. But its criteria are not clearly spelled out, nor are they tested against results. The formula is widely considered out of date, and magistrates frequently ignore the results.

Our research found other policies that appear to boost court appearance rates. In Washington and in Montgomery County, Md., officials develop individual plans for defendants awaiting trial. Drug and alcohol addicts are offered treatment and testing; defendants with mental-health problems are connected with support and treatment services; and those considered most likely to skip court are assigned electronic monitors.

How quickly cases get resolved matters, too; research shows that defendants are more likely to miss court dates when cases last longer. In San Diego and New York, half of all cases are resolved within 10 days. In Philadelphia, only a quarter of cases are resolved within 90 days.

Some of the factors that contribute to Philadelphia's failure-to-appear rate are being addressed. District Attorney Seth Williams is overhauling the unit in his office that charges defendants, and he is trying to expedite plea agreements. Both those steps should speed up case disposition.

Several of the city's top criminal-justice officials, including Williams and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison, have expressed interest in developing a new risk-assessment formula. The experience of other cities suggests that such a formula, properly structured and frequently updated, might help reduce Philadelphia's failure-to-appear rate.

These reforms are based on a commonsense concept: Figure out which defendants are most likely to skip court and which are likely to follow the rules, and then treat them accordingly. The result could be more defendants showing up for trial, less outstanding bail in the future, and savings for taxpayers now.

Larry Eichel is the project director of Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative. Claire Shubik-Richards is a senior associate of the initiative and the author of "Philadelphia's Crowded, Costly Jails: The Search for Safe Solutions." They can be reached atleichel@pewtrusts.org.