Despite what Joseph Heller’s famous protagonist Capt. John Yossarian thinks, you can escape a Catch-22. Just ask Philadelphia resident Evelyn Piner.
In February, “It’s Our Money” reported on legal advocates arguing that Philadelphia’s court system, the First Judicial District, is unjustly saddling people with large debts they don’t actually owe. The problem, critics say, is that many of the court’s records are deeply flawed.
We spoke with several debtors, including Piner. She was stuck in a Catch-22. Last year, the First Judicial District sent her a letter saying she owed $900 in forfeited bail for skipping a hearing in early 1990. But that didn’t make sense, she said, because she was in prison at the time. Plus, a 1993 letter from her former probation officer stated that she was “not in any type of violation or bad standing.”
A court administrator told Piner that her fines couldn't be completely waived unless she could document that she was incarcerated, according to her attorney from Community Legal Services.
But Piner couldn’t prove that she was in prison during the hearing because all the prisons system’s documents prior to 1991 have been destroyed.
Now, she has broken free from the Catch-22.
In April, the First Judicial District rescinded all of her bail debts, after Piner challenged them.
Piner is pleased.
“I think I’ve earned it,” she says.
Deputy court administrator Dominic Rossi could not immediately say why Piner’s debts have been wiped clean. But, generally speaking, he says the First Judicial District is now being more lenient with people who can reasonably explain that they were incarcerated at the time of a hearing prior to 1991.
“If they’re alleging that, for anything before 1991, they were incarcerated [and] if we have no records whatsoever … then we will take them at their word,” Rossi says.
Rossi stresses that this doesn’t mean that just anyone can claim that they were in prison at the time of a hearing.
Following the “It’s Our Money” report, the First Judicial District also enacted reforms earlier this year to make it easier for people to challenge court debts they believe are inaccurate.