Violent criminals flout broken bail system
Tens of thousands of Philadelphia fugitives are on the streets, abetted by the city’s deeply flawed program.
Part 3 of 4
The robber had a gun in his hand and a smirk on his face.
"Y'all gonna make me kill you," he said. "Where's the safe?"
There was no safe inside the Caprice Villa bar, just a handful of middle-aged patrons passing a Tuesday evening.
Shaking, bartender Marcia Williamson gave the gunman the little bit of money in her till: $115. He took cash from the customers and fled into the West Philadelphia night.
The holdup in June left Williamson, 52, traumatized.
"It was really bad. The next day, I said, 'I can't go there,' " Williamson said. "I had to go see my psychiatrist. I had to increase my medicine."
Williamson bitterly recalls the "little smirk" of Timothy Scott, the 22-year-old man whom police have charged with holding up the Caprice Villa. But she is also upset at a court system that could not keep him behind bars despite multiple arrests.
"We all know the dockets are full. They're behind. We know all that," she said. "Whatever they're doing, stop letting them out."
Before the robbery, Scott had skipped out under the courts' "deposit bail" system, which requires many offenders to pay only 10 percent of their bail while signing IOUs for the remainder. In the early 1970s, it replaced a system run by largely corrupt private bail bondsmen.
The current system is overseen by the courts' top judges - Municipal Court President Judge Marsha H. Neifield and the two leaders of Common Pleas Court, President Judge Pamela P. Dembe and Administrative Judge D. Webster Keogh.
In Scott's many brushes with the law, arraignment magistrates were the ones making decisions that put him back on the street. Magistrates follow guidelines that try to weigh the severity of the crime and a suspect's history of skipping court.
When police say Scott walked into the Caprice Villa, he was a repeat fugitive from justice.
Scott has been arrested 10 times since turning 18. He's locked up awaiting trial on charges of robbing the bar and a state liquor store the following night.
His defense lawyer, Holly C. Dobrosky, says that he's innocent of the robberies and that two victims who picked him out of a police lineup are mistaken.
But before his most recent bust, he racked up eight bench warrants as he skipped court again and again - only to be arrested, hauled before the magistrates, and released anew.
Scott is in custody now on high bail. But at last count, there were 47,000 other Philadelphia fugitives on the loose.
In a crisis that has been brewing for decades, Philadelphia defendants are thumbing their noses at the city's judges and victims, given a free pass by the system's ineffectual bail program - and skipping court in huge numbers.
It is not too much of a stretch to say, as does Deputy District Attorney John P. Delaney Jr., one of the city's top prosecutors, "The bail system is a complete cartoon."
When defendants skip court, old victims are victimized again and fresh ones are created as fugitives commit more crimes.
For some fugitives, ducking out on court is a tactical step that wears down witnesses and helps set the stage for the eventual collapse of their cases.
"You think you're going to jail, you just run," said a convicted robber who is now a government witness and who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
"They catch you a year or two later, the case falls apart. Any witness they have, they don't have time for it. They got a life. . . . They just don't want the hassle. That's a known fact."
The courts' bail system is deeply flawed. Under the city's government-run 10 percent "deposit bail" program, thousands of accused criminals are blowing off court - and officials have abdicated the job of demanding the remaining bail they owe.
Fugitives now owe taxpayers a whopping $1 billion in forfeited bail, according to court officials who computed the figure at The Inquirer's request.
Despite a promise in January to hire a firm to aggressively pursue that money, the city has yet to do so. The effort is stalled because the Clerk of Quarter Sessions Office, an obscure player in the court bureaucracy, has never kept a computerized list of the debtors.
Mayor Nutter's Law Department and the courts also pledged 11 months ago that they would crack down on debtors going forward. That hasn't happened, either.
Clerk of Quarter Sessions Vivian T. Miller's staff has tagged only about 200 people as new bail debtors this year - though thousands of defendants have skipped court.
The evidence of systemic failure is massive:
A new Inquirer analysis of Philadelphia court data from 2007 and 2008 showed that 19,000 defendants annually fail to show up in court for at least one hearing.
That's one of every three defendants.
Every year, the pool of "long-term" fugitives grows. Though thousands of defendants come back voluntarily or are rearrested, many disappear. As of last month, there were 46,801 long-term fugitives - suspects generally on the run for at least a year. The bulk of these fugitives date from this decade and the last.
If jailed all at once, those fugitives would fill Philadelphia's prisons five times over.
Efforts to catch them are anemic. The court system operates a warrant squad with just 51 officers - one for every 918 suspects.
While Philadelphia police routinely check for bench warrants when they make arrests, the department has no unit assigned solely to pursue people who have fled court.
For years, Philadelphia has had one of the nation's worst long-term fugitive rates. According to the most recent federal report, it tied with Essex County, N.J. - home of Newark - for having the highest felony fugitive rate among large urban counties.
In both counties, 11 percent of defendants were on the run. The national data, made public last year, tracked 2004 court cases.
In the private bail industry, Philadelphia's $1 billion in uncollected and forfeited bail has become a notorious figure.
Dennis Bartlett, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, an organization for commercial bail insurers, said criminals realize that the Philadelphia system has no bite.
"If there's no certitude of being caught and being incarcerated, paying that 10 percent to the clerk is just a price of doing business to these people," he said. "That's why you have a billion dollars out there."
The enormous debt has been run up under the deposit bail system, under which defendants put down 10 percent of their bail with the stipulation that they will owe the rest if they run. In reality, no one has gone after that 90 percent for decades.
In interviews, judges and court officials seemed to view the fugitive tally as part and parcel of running a big urban court system.
Former Municipal Court President Judge Louis C. Presenza framed the issue against the backdrop of a clogged court docket and overcrowded Philadelphia prisons.
"It doesn't show much respect to the system that people are subpoenaed to come to court and they don't show up. That's an insult," said Presenza, who retired in May after 27 years on the bench.
"The flip side is, if everybody came to court, we'd need 200 more judges and all the staff. If all these people came in tomorrow, what do you want me to do? Hold court at the Linc?"
But police, prosecutors, and criminologists worry about the message that fugitives send in neighborhoods where police already face deep resistance in getting witnesses and even victims to cooperate.
In an interview, Temple University criminal justice professor John Goldkamp said the fugitives provide a lesson in "reverse deterrence."
He said the failure to go after them sent a harmful message.
"It says, 'Don't sweat it. You can go home and you don't have to come back,' " he said.
Goldkamp added: "This is the invisible caseload of the court that is never discussed. It is justice owed."
'Known to carry firearms'
In his first arrest as an adult, the 18-year-old Timothy Scott was accused of taking part in the 2006 carjacking of a $30,000 Audi A4 stolen at gunpoint in Mantua from three Haverford College students.
Police arrested Scott some time after the carjacking when they spotted him standing next to the open door of the stolen car - and he took off running when officers approached.
That arrest was tossed out because police couldn't tie Scott to the actual carjacking. The city later paid Scott $25,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that he'd been falsely arrested and that his cystic fibrosis had gone untreated while he was in custody.
A year after the carjacking arrest, police say, Scott stole a Dodge from a used-car dealer and auto-repair shop near his home.
Three days after the theft, the shop's owner, Alfred Mosby, spotted Scott in the Dodge. By now, one side of the car had been badly damaged. Mosby reached into the car and grabbed the keys, and he and Scott began to fight, Mosby said in a recent interview.
Police briefly handcuffed Mosby, thinking he was the car thief, but soon afterward arrested Scott.
About a month after that arrest, police said, Scott confronted Mosby in court and threatened him, saying, "I know where you are and I'm gonna f- you up." Scott now faced a second case, of witness intimidation.
Over the next year, both cases collapsed.
Mosby, 55, said he showed up for hearing after hearing, only to find them postponed.
"The system is messed up," Mosby said.
Indeed, records show that the trial in the car theft was rescheduled six times - and the witness-intimidation case, seven times.
After a while, Mosby said, he simply got worn out. He was losing valuable time repairing and selling cars.
"Time," he said. "I couldn't continue to run back and forth, back and forth."
To make matters worse, Mosby said, a judge kicked him out of one hearing because he was talking too loud. Mosby insisted he had been speaking quietly to a potential customer.
"I left," he said. "I had to go to work. I'm not going to sit there and be humiliated."
Finally, disgusted, Mosby decided to settle the whole thing privately. At a court hearing, he took Scott aside and told him he would drop the case if Scott paid him $5,850 to repair the Dodge. Scott agreed, paying him $40 on the spot, and promising more later, Mosby said.
Mosby said he stopped pursuing the case, but Scott never paid any more money.
As he turned 21 last year, Scott racked up more arrests - and a series of bench warrants as he failed to show up for court.
One pinch was for cursing at police and trying to block them while they made arrests in the summer of 2008. Scott was found guilty and given two years' probation.
In another arrest sheet that summer, police called him a "drug dealer known to carry firearms."
Investigators said this after police arrested him on the street, where they said they found him with 13 vials of crack. He was released without having to put up any money.
Within five weeks, Scott was apprehended on a second drug charge. Again, he was released without having to put up any money.
Two weeks later, he was arrested again on a third misdemeanor drug-possession charge. This time, the court said he had to put up $100 - 10 percent of $1,000 bail.
Before he came up with the money, Scott got lucky. As the result of a routine move by the city, he was let out of jail in the fall of 2008 under a "special release" petition to relieve prison overcrowding. Scott didn't have to put up any money.
He was one of about 2,000 inmates released yearly under a twice-weekly review process that has been going on for more than a decade.
Within five weeks, he would skip a court date. He was a fugitive.
$11 and a bag of T-shirts
While most fugitives in Philadelphia are wanted for property crimes, more than 300 accused rapists, robbers, and assault suspects slipped free between 2006 and 2008 and remain uncaught, The Inquirer's analysis shows.
Scott has plenty of company when it comes to defendants who commit more crimes while on the run, police say.
Donald Guy of North Philadelphia knocked a man's teeth out in a robbery last year while free after putting up 10 percent of $2,500 bail on a drug-dealing charge, police say. He was given new bail of 10 percent of $4,000 and released again.
Guy promptly became a fugitive. One day after a judge signed a bench warrant for his arrest, police say, Guy shot a husband and wife to death in their clothing store on Wyoming Avenue. He bolted with $11 and a bag of T-shirts in the July 2008 killing, detectives said. Guy, 25, is behind bars, awaiting trial.
In June, the two young men accused in a car crash that killed a young mother and three children in Feltonville were both fugitives on bench warrants.
Donta Craddock, 18, had been on the run for seven weeks after taking off from a juvenile home; he'd been sent there after stealing a case of beer at gunpoint. His accomplice, Ivan Rodriguez, 20, had failed to show up for his preliminary hearing in a theft case a week before the crash.
In 2007, accused rapist Reginald Strickland, free on bail, could not bear to wait for the verdict on charges of sexually assaulting Keira Ford at gunpoint the previous year.
Strickland took off just as the jury began deliberating - and he went on a rampage, raping or assaulting four women within days of each other.
As it happened, Strickland was acquitted in absentia by the jury in the first assault case, but convicted of the subsequent four attacks. Strickland, 32, is now serving a sentence of at least 70 years.
Ford told investigators that as Strickland held a gun to her head and forced her to perform oral sex, he boasted - falsely - that he had been spotlighted on the television show America's Most Wanted. In the later attacks, two more women told detectives that Strickland made the same boast.
In a recent interview, Ford, 25, who gave permission to be identified, said she was upset that he hadn't been found guilty in her case. Even so, she said, Strickland's jumping bail meant that even a guilty verdict wouldn't have stopped him. He was on the run even before the jury came back, she pointed out.
"He would have gotten away," she said. "No matter what the D.A. did. No matter what the jury did. No matter what I did."
$1 billion in IOUs
Not so many years ago in Philadelphia, the city's bail system was in disarray. Crooked private bail bondsmen had stuck taxpayers with bogus bail bonds - leaving the city almost $1 million in the hole. Too many fugitives were on the loose: 4,324 of them in 1969.
"Hundreds of Criminals Evade Prison," an Inquirer headline cried at the time.
In a sweeping reform, Philadelphia put the bondsmen out of business. The court itself took over the job of bailing out defendants - part of a national trend that found private bail distasteful. In a 1971 opinion, Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun called the commercial bail trade "offensive" and "odorous."
Today, with 47,000 Philadelphia defendants on the loose and $1 billion in forfeited bail uncollected, it's safe to say that the reform hasn't worked out so well.
Assistant District Attorney Sarah V. Hart, an expert on bail issues, said what she called a "culture of disrespect" had taken strong root in Philadelphia among criminals.
It was fueled, she said, by efforts in the late 1980s to reduce prison overcrowding that made it harder for prosecutors to lock up defendants ahead of trial. Increasingly, Hart said, defendants realized that the pool of fugitives was too large for there to be any real threat of arrest.
Under Philadelphia's bail system, only about 15 percent of the 60,000 suspects arrested yearly remain behind bars to await trial.
Of the remainder, about half are released without having to put up any money at all. This would include people arrested for, say, petty drug possession.
The others put down 10 percent of their bail amount under the deposit bail program. They sign an IOU for the rest. There is no means test, or determination of ability to pay, before bail is set.
It is these uncollected IOUs that now add up to $1 billion.
That sum is owed by about 210,000 defendants - or one bail debt for every seven Philadelphians.
In his recent unsuccessful campaign for district attorney, the Republican candidate, Michael Untermeyer, sought to make the bail debt a key issue. Citing the Scott case and others, he declared, "$1 billion owed to the city, one billion reasons to change."
"That is an IOU that in practice is never collected," Untermeyer said. "The system is insane. We might as well put up a sign that reads 'Come to Philadelphia - for the restaurants, the theater, and to be a criminal.' "
In a recent interview, the incoming district attorney, Democrat Seth Williams, said the high fugitive count was "a huge issue."
The bail problem has persisted even though outgoing District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham has tried for years to encourage change. A decade ago, she said the unpaid debt "makes a mockery of the bail system.
This fall, she wrote Mayor Nutter to call the bail system "a train wreck which imperils our financial stability and guts the justice system."
She said the system's failure to crack down on fugitives amounted to "just a great big 'Get Out of Jail Free' card for defendants and a big expensive joke played on the City of Philadelphia."
In interviews, city officials have blamed one another for the steady accumulation of massive bail debt.
Clerk of Quarter Sessions Miller has pointed a finger at the Law Department, saying its lawyers had failed to go after the bail deadbeats.
Aides to City Solicitor Shelley R. Smith said it was Miller's fault. They complained that Miller had never passed on the names of the debtors.
In the wind
After Scott caught his break due to prison overcrowding - going free without having to put up any money - he still faced trials on his three drug arrests.
At the first hearing on his first drug arrest, scheduled for Oct. 3, 2008, Scott failed to appear.
The following month, though, he showed up for court. His outstanding bench warrants were lifted, and he was released without having to put up any bail - again.
Within a matter of weeks, he missed more hearings. He was a fugitive once more.
In March of this year, Timothy Scott appeared once again at the Criminal Justice Center.
This time around, court officials cracked down a bit - a bail magistrate said Scott would have to put up 10 percent of $2,500 bail to go free. Scott put up the $250 the same day.
A month later, police arrested him one more time. It was his eighth bust in three years.
Police picked him up seven blocks from his Mantua home, charging him with possessing crack and marijuana, and carrying a concealed firearm.
The courts set his bail at 10 percent of $15,000. Scott paid up his $1,500 about a month after his arrest and walked free.
Court officials, for their part, said recently that the D.A.'s Office had never appealed any of the bail decisions. They also pointed out that bail, in some of the arrests, had been set higher than recommended by the guidelines.
Two weeks after putting up the money, Scott was a no-show at a June 5 trial for possession of crack.
The judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest. It was Scott's eighth bench warrant.
He was in the wind - again.
The next time he would surface, police said, was the night he leveled a machine gun-like pistol at Marcia Williamson inside the Caprice Villa.
Chasing the money
In the months ahead, critics say, leaders of the criminal justice system face a pair of related challenges: going after the missing $1 billion - and fixing a bail program that put the thousands of fugitives on the streets and spawned the massive debt.
After The Inquirer started asking questions about the mountain of bail, the Nutter administration promised action. It put out a bid request for firms to go after the $1 billion.
Eleven months later, the city still has not awarded contracts.
The Law Department refused to to say why. But in a recent exchange of letters with Abraham, Nutter laid out the reason. He wrote that the staff of Clerk of Quarter Sessions Miller "is unable to provide records of debtors and the amounts that have been paid or unpaid."
Robin T. Jones, Miller's first deputy and daughter, acknowledged in an interview that the office had never kept computerized records of the debts. It has simply put a paper notation into individual defendant's files, she said.
Even assuming that can be remedied, David C. Lawrence, the top administrator of the city courts, predicted that the move to collect the money would be a flop.
"Most of those people are dead. You'll never find them," he said. "There's a tremendous amount of uncollectible judgments there."
Though it has yet to close the deal, the city has tentatively selected two collection firms: Municipal Services Bureau of Austin, Texas, and Unifund of Cincinnati.
Executives with MSB said they were confident that it could recover much of the money.
"Once we find them, we are very effective at getting them to settle up their debts," said Patrick J. Swanick, the firm's chief executive officer.
A fix for the future?
Despite its image of shady storefront businesses and the baggage of past scandals, the private bail industry argues that it can save Philadelphia millions and dramatically reduce the number of fugitives.
For starters, the trade says, the evidence is in: that Philadelphia has become an object lesson in the failure of 10-percent-down bail.
"The numbers of unpaid bail-bond forfeitures and the concurrent rise in crime statistics speak for themselves in Philly," said Bill Carmichael, president of American Surety Co., an company that offers bail insurance in 43 states.
"The present system doesn't work, and those in charge lack the imagination or the willingness to look at alternatives."
Of the nation's top 10 cities, they point out, only Chicago and Philadelphia rely heavily on deposit bail. They say it is no surprise that each has more than 40,000 fugitives.
Jerry Watson, chief legal officer for AIA Holdings Inc., which annually underwrites 20 percent of all bail bonds in the nation, made a similar point.
"If I'm a career criminal, I will move tomorrow to Philadelphia. Because I love it - if I get arrested, I will get out of jail for 10 percent, max.
"I will know that I will not pay any more than that and that nobody is going to come after me. How much better can it be?"
Aside from the forgone money, Watson and others argue, a price is paid in wasted judicial resources, exasperated victims and witnesses, lawyer downtime - and, most seriously, in continued lawbreaking.
"I'm certain that the current pretrial release method in Philadelphia is a direct cause of an escalated crime rate there," Watson said.
While Philadelphia court officials seem almost resigned to the fugitive problem, private-industry executives say their involvement - and their self-interest - would mean that defendants would show for court.
"We get these folks in," Watson said. "We do it not because we're nice folks - though I do think we're nice - it's because if we can't, we have to pay the full amount of that bail. All of our focus is getting these people to court."
One way to ensure that, the executives said, is to make sure people close to the accused are on the hook for bail.
"Our customer is not the defendant," Watson said. "It is someone who wants that person out of jail - a wife, a mother, an employer, a relative, a sweetheart. If he runs away, they are going to tell us where he went."
The industry has its critics.
Timothy J. Murray, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute in Washington, a group that vigorously opposes private bail, agreed that Philadelphia had an "unacceptable" fugitive problem.
But he said the solution lay in making smart judgments about which defendants might run - and not in imposing financial burdens on impoverished defendants. That, he said, smacks of the medieval "debtors' prison."
However, academics seem to agree that private bail does a better job at reducing fugitives.
Experts from universities and the U.S. Department of Justice have found that clients of commercial bail agencies are more likely to appear for court in the first place and more likely to be captured if they do flee.
Places that ban commercial bail "pay a high price," economics professors Eric Helland and Alexander Tabarrok wrote in a 2004 study.
After studying eight years of national data, they concluded that fugitive rates were 30 percent higher in states that relied on deposit bail.
And Abraham wrote Nutter recently that "the return of private bail bondsmen should be seriously considered."
Lawrence, the veteran court administrator, remains cool to the return of private bail in any big way.
"Our history with bail bondsmen is absolutely horrible, abysmal, and criminal," he said. "And that's why we changed it."
In 2006, however, the Philadelphia courts took a small step to reopen the door to private bail.
But they imposed a big hurdle. The courts required bail firms to deposit $250,000 up front for every $1 million in bail they write.
Executives in the private bail business called the requirement "ridiculous," "ludicrous," and virtually unprecedented in the nation.
So far only one company, Lexington National Insurance, has been writing bail in Philadelphia. In a city where thousands of defendants face cases yearly, it has backed just two dozen bails this year.
A robber on the run
Detectives were worried. A young man, equipped with a very deadly gun, was off on a crime jag.
Over just three days in June, a masked robber armed with a MAC-10, similar to an Uzi, hit six places, sometimes accompanied by a lookout. The accomplice carried a 9mm handgun.
Their targets included two State Stores. At one of those, blurry video stills taken from a surveillance camera show the two gunmen menacing patrons and clerks, guns held high.
After some of the robberies, the pair would ride away on black dirt bikes.
Police said the crew also targeted bars, choosing quiet places frequented by an older clientele. One was the Caprice Villa.
Police say the leader was Timothy Scott. Detectives took him into custody on the street near his home only a day after the last robbery.
They charged him with two of the holdups, including the stickup at the Caprice. Victims have identified him as the gunman in lineups.
He is now behind bars at the city's Curran-Fromhold prison. He's been unable to post his new bail - 10 percent of $300,000.
The accomplice is still at large.