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Phila. courts overhauling bail system

For the first time in nearly two decades, the Philadelphia court system has launched an overhaul of how it decides which criminal defendants to release and which to jail before trial.

For the first time in nearly two decades, the Philadelphia court system has launched an overhaul of how it decides which criminal defendants to release and which to jail before trial.

The new initiative is the latest effort by the state Supreme Court and top court administrators to get a grip on Philadelphia's persistent problem of suspects ducking out of court, leaving victims and witnesses in the lurch.

In 1982, Philadelphia's became the nation's first court system to adopt bail guidelines to make sure defendants were treated uniformly. But the guidelines were last updated in 1995, and court magistrates who set bail have routinely ignored them - and the system's fugitive problem has mushroomed.

Ronald D. Castille, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, said Wednesday that reform was needed to modernize "a system that perhaps has not served the court system and the community well."

Castille described the overhaul as the "second phase" of a systemic reform he and fellow Justice Seamus P. McCaffery put into place in response to a 2009 Inquirer investigative series titled "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied" that depicted a Philadelphia criminal justice system in crisis.

McCaffery called bail and pretrial detention "an extremely important problem that needed to be addressed."

In a policy document distributed to court officials Tuesday, Common Pleas Court Judge John W. Herron, whom Castille named as the system's top administrative judge last year, unveiled both an immediate and a longer-term shake-up of the system.

Short-term, Herron recommended that bail amounts - determined by magistrates - be hiked by 50 percent to catch up with inflation since 1995. Finding the existing guidelines too lenient, magistrates in Philadelphia for some years have been imposing bail amounts above the advisory guidelines, research has documented.

Of the 55,000 men and women charged with crimes each year in Philadelphia, only about 10 percent remain behind bars to await trial - many because they cannot afford bail. Several hundred are charged with homicide, for which no bail is granted.

Of the remainder, about half are released without having to put up cash bail. This leniency is granted to those arrested on less serious charges.

The rest are released under a system in which they must put down 10 percent of a cash bail amount - typically $20,000, according to the most recent court data.

Though defendants are told they are liable to pay the remaining 90 percent if they skip court, the courts for decades never went after that money - a failing that critics said spurred a "culture of noncompliance" by defendants.

Longer term, Herron said the courts would develop a more sophisticated "risk assessment tool" to identify defendants at risk of skipping court or committing new crimes. Finally, he said, the system will also develop new ways to watch suspects who are free awaiting trial.

He said the new risk tool is to be developed using "data mining techniques" with the help of Richard A. Berk, a professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Villanova Law professor Steven L. Chanenson, the university's associate dean for research, will help develop the new supervision techniques.

Chanenson could not be reached for comment. Berk, on vacation, declined comment.

As a researcher at Penn, Berk has carried out innovative work that sought to forecast pools of potential murderers in Philadelphia. His complex techniques have already been adopted by the city's Probation Department to divide clients into low-risk, medium-risk, and high-risk groups, with ever-increasing levels of supervision.

In making bail decisions, the system's six magistrates must protect the rights of defendants who have merely been charged with a crime - not found guilty - but also weigh such factors as their risk of fleeing or reoffending.

McCaffery said Berk's work would help put decisions on a sounder footing, "not just backed on anecdotes, but on real-life accurate data accumulation."

William Chadwick, a former top Philadelphia prosecutor hired by the State Supreme Court to guide the reform, agreed.

"Predicting human behavior is always challenging and imprecise, but we are hopeful we will have a far better model," Chadwick said. "This is designed to help the magistrates in making very difficult decisions. They are basically trying to predict who is going to fail and who is going to succeed."

During the first phase of the reform program, the two justices imposed a sweeping series of new court rules designed to make sure that more cases were heard on their merits and not dismissed early because of witness fear and fatigue or gamesmanship by defense lawyers.

This year, they have been tackling another key issue highlighted in the series - the city's massive problem of court no-shows.

The Inquirer reported that Philadelphia was tied with Essex County, N.J., home of Newark, for having the nation's highest court-fugitive rate. The newspaper also reported that Philadelphia had 47,000 long-term fugitives and that absconders owed the city $1 billion in unpaid forfeited bail.

The court system cracked down on the fugitive problem by setting up a special Bench Warrant Court to give offenders extra jail time and taking steps to encourage private bail firms to do more business in Philadelphia.

Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or