In a single act, nearly $1 billion in debt owed to Philadelphia by onetime fugitives has disappeared.

Philadelphia's court system, at the request of the city, wiped off the books longtime debt owed by tens of thousands of criminal defendants who failed to appear for their court dates.

The First Judicial District has ordered collection efforts to cease for any outstanding bail balances owed before March 3, 2010. All debts are to be erased from defendants' electronic records, the court said in its Sept. 30 order.

The order applies only to defendants who skipped bail: 61,000 bench warrants issued as far back as 50 years. Defendants are still on the hook for fines not paid and restitution not made.

Eric Patterson, who 24 years ago served a 19-month prison term for a drug arrest, is one of those defendants who once skipped bail. He was 19 at the time. Today, he is a husband and father of three who has worked with the homeless and disabled.

In December 2013, Gov. Corbett pardoned him, said Jamie Gullen, a lawyer for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which has been advocating for change. The group has helped more than 800 people manage their bail debt, some of it stretching back decades.

In May, Patterson's case was expunged. But he still owed $1,100 on a $5,000 bail judgment that resulted from when he fled decades ago. That debt has now disappeared.

"It is a blessing, because I can do other things with that money," he said. "I can fix up my house or get school clothing for my kids."

The order follows extensive reforms that came after The Inquirer published a series of articles in 2010 that shed light on widespread systemic problems in the city courts, including an ineffective bail system that for decades imposed no consequences for skipping court.

Criminal defendants are required to post 10 percent of bail in cash to earn release. Before recent court reforms, many routinely fled - on paper forfeiting the remaining 90 percent owed - but in practice little was done to catch them or collect the debt.

Some of the changes included better tracking of records, expanding diversionary programs, and increased funding for witness protections.

In January 2011, the courts launched an aggressive plan to attempt to collect $1.5 billion, a total that included outstanding fines and restitution.

By summer 2011, a progress report on the reform initiative released by the courts said collections were up by $3,300 per month but because many of the balances were decades old and record-keeping was poor, "a large portion of the outstanding debt realistically will never be collected."

The report also cited a 70 percent unemployment rate among defendants as part of the problem.

"We've been calling for ending it for a long time because it was such a car wreck," said Sharon M. Dietrich, Community Legal Services' litigation director, of the court's aggressive collection push.

In the early going, the courts said they recovered $1.5 million over a six-week period, but after several years of stepped-up collection efforts, much of the billion-dollar tab remained.

"It may have been reduced a little bit, but not substantially," said Dominic J. Rossi, deputy court administrator for the city courts.

Rossi said the courts granted permission to abandon collection after city officials informed the First Judicial District that of their intention to do so. He said he viewed the city's position as a positive.

"On a business point of view and on a practical point of view, it was not worth collecting it," he said.

In a November 2011 report to the First Judicial District, Community Legal Services said that even a monthly payment of $35 was unreasonable for many people.

Payment conferences featured "a parade of unemployed and underemployed people," Community Legal Services said.

"Many, if not most, are clearly disabled, often with SSI or General Assistance as their income. Others are people with no work history or recovering addicts. Among those working, many are in the underground economy," the report said.

Still, the collection push had a lasting benefit, court officials said.

"No question about it," Rossi said. "The [fugitive] rate has substantially decreased."

Patterson said he expects to be free of remaining bail debt.

"From my understanding, it's all gone," he said "It's wiped out."

215-854-4915 @dylancpurcell