In 2010, Rufus Taylor was trying to find work in Philadelphia to support his two young kids. Employment wasn’t coming easily. Taylor had a felony conviction on his record, and he had been in prison for most of the previous 16 years. He applied for public assistance, but then, to his surprise, was denied. The agency told him that he had an outstanding debt to the courts of Philadelphia and that he’d need to resolve it before he was eligible.
“[The courts] didn’t contact me, they didn’t say nothing,” he said when I spoke with him last year. He says that if hadn’t applied for welfare, he would have never known about the court debt.
Taylor was advised to go to the Criminal Justice Center, and it was there that he discovered he owed $41,897.70 to the courts of Philadelphia. And he wasn’t alone: He was one of 300,000 people targeted for the repayment of outstanding debts to the court.
The reason that the amount was so large was that it included “forfeited bail.” In Philadelphia, a person need put down only 10 percent of the set bail, vastly reducing the financial incentive to return to court in a timely fashion.
As a result of a faulty and poorly monitored bail system, the city suffered from a fugitive problem for decades – people were arrested, but never returned to court. The problem was outlined in great (and embarrassing) detail in the Philadelphia Inquirer series, “Justice: Delayed, Denied, Dismissed, Denied.”
But Philadelphia is not alone in trying to collect money from the formerly incarcerated. While Rufus Taylor’s debt is particularly high, it’s not unusual at all to leave prison anywhere across the country owing fees, fines, or costs to the local court.
Judge Pamela Dembe, President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, says the city’s efforts to collect some $1.5 billion in judicial debt is both necessary and fair.
“This isn’t some great plot to scour the last dime out of the pockets of the poor people of Philadelphia,” she says. “This is collecting money from people who have cost us, the taxpayers, a lot of money to bring them to justice. It isn’t random.”
Ronald Wright, a professor of criminal law at Wake Forest School of Law in North Carolina, agrees that “at the abstract level it makes sense,” to collect from those who committed crimes that cost the taxpayers money.
The problem, Wright says, is no one is keeping track of the impact. He recently co-authored a paper with Professor Wayne Logan of Florida State University titled “Mercenary Criminal Justice” looking at these fees and fines. “It’s just once all the fees add up, nobody really steps back and says, ‘Whoah, these fees all taken all together really may be a bit much.’”
The quantity and amounts of the fees vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; often levied at sentencing but presented after release, the bills can cover everything from the costs of urine tests to probation and parole to crime victims’ funds, lab fees, collections fees, and more.
According to an interim report published in 2011 by the criminal courts of Philadelphia, there is a 70% unemployment rate for defendants; the courts do not expect to collect most of what they’re asking for.
And even while the courts have attempted to accommodate people’s varying financial means with payment plans of $15 or $50 a month, it is not necessarily an expense that everyone can afford. For many people, the debt ends up with collection agencies, creating long-term financial problems.
“You don’t get rid of it in bankruptcy,” Wright explains. One of the reasons Philadelphia could pursue decades-old debts is that there’s no statute of limitations on criminal justice debt.
“It doesn’t go away if they stop trying to collect it for five years or for 50 years. It’s just always there,” Wright says.
Rufus Taylor has been challenging his debt in court with the help of Community Legal Services. This past July, CLS helped him and three other defendants challenge their judicial debt in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.
Taylor was lucky; the bail judgments against him were reversed, and he now owes much less than expected, if anything. But the other three people still owe sums and have appealed the Superior Court’s verdict.
And while Taylor has had the judgment on his bail forfeitures reversed, he says that his credit has been wrecked in the meantime.
“Can’t buy a car, can’t get a loan, can’t get a mortgage,” Taylor says. His lousy credit continues to have far-reaching consequences. “It keeps me from everything.”
Critics of judicial debt say it’s time to look at the bigger picture. “I think we have to step back and ask what’s our goal here?” asks Michelle Alexander, Ohio State University law Professor and author of The New Jim Crow.
“If the purpose of incarceration is supposedly to keep us safer, than it makes no sense to make it vastly more difficult for people when they’re released from prison to ever get back on their feet and to be integrated into society again,” Alexander says.