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Commercial Bail The Answer to Philly’s Broken Bail System

Philadelphia, PA – Yesterday, Senator Arlen Specter held a hearing at the National Constitution Center entitled "Exploring Federal Solutions to the State and Local Fugitive Crises."

Philadelphia, the Nation’s sixth largest city with a population of more than 1.6 million and more than 40,000 outstanding warrants for failure to appear, is the logical site for a hearing on fugitives.  I was present for the hearing along with Cheryl Burns of Bail USA and Terry Allen of the Federal Strategy Group.  ABC has been working with Terry Allen on matters related to commercial bail at the federal level.

Philadelphia has been in a state of flux after a recent series of articles appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer addressing, in part, that city’s broken bail bond system and the failure to collect more than one billion in forfeited deposit bonds dating back to 1968. 

Invited to speak at the hearing were Philadelphia District Attorney, Seth Williams; Clerk of Quarter Sessions, Vivian T. Miller; Acting U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, John Patrignani; Chief of Pretrial Services, Fifth Judicial District, David Preski and Executive Director of The American Bail Coalition (ABC), Dennis Bartlett.

Clerk of Quarter Sessions, Vivian T. Miller has been at the center of the storm and while she was invited to the hearing, she did not attend.  Her Second Deputy, Mark Gaillard testified on her behalf and read a prepared statement.  Mr. Gaillard disputed the one billion dollars in uncollected forfeited bail that has been widely reported, saying the number was closer to 250 million.  He argued that according to their records the court had uncollected forfeitures of 2.2 million in 2009 and so simple math would indicate it is not possible that the city could be owed more than one billion dollars.

As a member of the commercial bail industry, I took issue with their figure of 2.2 million.  D.A. Seth Williams testified to the annual issuance of 25,000 failure to appear warrants.  Assuming an average bond amount of $2500 the amount of forfeited bail in 2009 would have been $62,500,000.  If these defendants were released on secured bail bonds, then you can expect that 2% or $1,250,000 of the total forfeited bail would be paid to the county.  However, because Philadelphia releases almost every defendant on a 10% deposit (90% unsecured) bond to the court, with no financial guarantee of payment, Philadelphia would have failed to collect $30,000,000 in 2009 alone.

D.A. Williams’ solution to the problem was to hire more staff for the purpose of vetting bond guarantors in addition to hiring a collection firm to pursue payment of the unsecured 90% on forfeited bonds.  This would result in added costs to the tax payers for hiring additional staff and paying a minimum 30% to a collection firm.  D.A. Williams is clearly not thinking outside the bureaucratic box, opting instead to expanding the box and having an adverse impact on Philadelphians safety and pocket book.  

By using commercial bail, you increase revenue to the county and reduce fugitive warrants.  Commercial bail also restores a sense of security to the community.  Reinstating the use of commercial bail is the answer to Philadelphia’s fugitive problem.  ABC Executive Director Dennis Bartlett expertly testified to the advantages of commercial bail prompting Senator Specter to say, "..it may be time to take another look it (commercial bail)."