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CON: Bounty hunters aren't best answer to city's fugitive problem

Even though Philadelphia's bail system is broken, it's anything but clear that inviting bounty hunters back to town will solve the city's fugitive problem.

That's why top court officials need to be held to their pledge to closely monitor the moves being made to open the door wider to commercial bail-bond writers, who are boasting of better-than-average court-appearance rates for their clients.

Faced with no-show-for-trial rates that mean as many as one in three criminal defendants skip their court dates, the city's courts, at the direction of the state Supreme Court, earlier this month lowered the bonding requirements for private bail firms.

By requiring 40 percent less in good-faith money from the bail bondsmen for every $1 million they write in bonds, the city expects to attract more firms willing to offer bonds.

In addressing the fugitive problem, low-conviction rates, and $1 billion in bail defaults documented by a 2010 Inquirer investigative series, the courts run the risk that resorting to bail bondsmen, on its own, won't improve the city's no-show statistics significantly.

At the same time, private bail will assure that often-indigent defendants and their families have to shoulder bail-fee debts.

Taking commercial bail practitioners at their word that their industry has cleaned up its unsavory practices from decades ago is another leap of faith that must be tested by experience.

In Philadelphia, such abuses led to a virtual ban on commercial cash bonds. Since then, legal-reform advocates from the American Bar Association and other groups have hardened their understandable opposition to cash bail because it puts a price on freedom — a price that cannot be afforded by many defendants who otherwise should be released.

Bail industry abuses, such as the blackmailing of gay defendnants, led the city to switch to operating its own bail system, which requires defendants to put up 10 percent of a cash bail.

In addition, pretrial-release criteria were fine-tuned in the 1980s and later in an effort to gauge who was a flight risk or danger to the community.

Under the city-run program, a defendant who shows up for trial recovers the 10 percent deposit, rather than having to fork over the equivalent of interest payments for a commercial bail bond.

It's true that, with a fugitive population that swelled to 47,000 at one point, aggressive measures are needed. Fortunately, though, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justice Seamus McCaffery aren't putting all their hopes in bail bondsmen.

In what's described as a hybrid approach, the justices also have directed that a special court be set up to crack down on fugitives. The so-called bench-warrant court under Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr. could issue week-long jail stays to defendants who miss court appearances.

That tactic, along with others the court should explore, could well be more effective than privatizing bail bonds in changing a mindset among defendants who now view court dates as optional.

The objective must be fairness. It's not fair to the public to have fugitives loose because the current bail system is an utter failure. But neither would it be fair to install a substitute system in which the innocent languish in jail because they can't pay a bail bondsman.