Are you facing collections for a debt to the criminal court? Know your rights.
In 2011, the Philadelphia courts began newly aggressive efforts to collect debts to the criminal courts. A new court payment system was put in place to collect outstanding court costs, fines, restitution payments, and forfeited bail. An estimated 400,000 Philadelphians are facing collections.
Advocates at Community Legal Services have been working with the courts to ensure that the new court payment system is implemented in a way that is fair to low-income individuals. The system is complicated, and it remains in development.
• The courts are trying to collect criminal court debts back to 1971. Individuals believed to owe debts are being asked to pay in full or to get into a payment plan with minimum monthly payment amounts of $35 or more.
• DO NOT agree to an amount you cannot afford. If you can’t afford $35 per month, go to a payment plan conference. These are currently held at the Criminal Justice Center, 1301 Filbert St., Room 1104. You don’t need an appointment—just walk in, any day but Tuesday, a little before 1:00pm. Even if collections agencies are calling, you can still get a payment plan with the court. If you are on public benefits or applying for them, ask to pay just $5 or $10 per month.
• If you disagree with what the court says you owe, you can ask for a special "contested hearing." These are currently held on Tuesdays at the Criminal Justice Center. In that hearing, you may also be able to get your supervision fees waived. Request a contested hearing by taking this form to City Hall Room 370. It can also be emailed or faxed. (See instructions at top of form).
• If you missed a court appearance and now owe a bail judgment, you can request a bail hearing by filing a petition (Click here for material related to filing a petition). You may be able to get your bail judgment reduced or vacated. Computers are available on the 3rd floor of the Criminal Justice Center to help with filing. CLS attorneys may be able to help you fight bail judgments. Consider coming to CLS for intake if you want help with filing a bail petition and in your bail hearing.
• After a certain period of time, debts are sent to a collections agency called ACS. After that, debts may be sent to a law firm for further collection efforts. You can still get an affordable payment plan with the court even when you are in collections.
• The consequences of not being current with a payment plan include: loss of certain public benefits; wage garnishment; lien on property, and possibly Sheriff’s Sale; frozen bank accounts; ineligibility for expungement and/or pardon; and more.
Community Legal Services may be able to help. Walk-in intake is 9-12, Monday through Friday, at 1424 Chestnut St. and 3638 N. Broad (at Erie). Call 215-981-3700, or 215-227-2400, or click here for more information on the services CLS provides and our income limits.
CLS has developed the following materials on the new court payment system to help individuals who may owe debts to the court, as well as advocates. *Note that the information on this page is only relevant for the Philadelphia court payment system. Counties other than Philadelphia have their own systems.
Costs & Fines - Client Flier
Costs & Fines - Client Flier (in Spanish)
Risks to Clients Not in Compliance with Payment Plan
Filing a Petition to Vacate Bail
Owing court costs and fines can cause people to lose or be denied some kinds of benefits from the welfare office. If you are trying to get benefits, you can use this letter to explain how costs and fines affect your eligibility for benefits. If your benefits were denied or cut off because of court costs or any other reason, you can come to CLS for help.
Court Cost Collections (powerpoint)
CLS attorney Rebecca Vallas delivered a presentation on criminal debt at a Pennsylvania Bar Institute seminar in July 2011. See here for the materials.
CLS attorney Rebecca Vallas led a workshop at the Philadelphia Prison Summit in June 2012. See here for the presentation slides.
Philadelphia Office of Court Compliance
Online Docket Search (has PA cases back to 1968)
Office of Court Compliance Forms Center
Online Petition to Vacate or Reduce Bail Forfeitures
Press on Philadelphia's Court Collections:
Click below to watch Penn Law's documentary, Pay Up! The film discusses criminal justice debt in Philadelphia and its devastating effect on low-income people. The film features CLS attorneys and clients.
WHYY interview with CLS staff about the new effort to collect court costs (May 2011)
Newsworks article about the Court Collections seminar hosted by Shirley Kitchen (Nov 2011)
Philadelphia Daily News article on problems with Philadelphia's court collection efforts (Feb 2012)
WHYY story on problems with Philadelphia's court collection efforts (Feb 2012)
Blog post by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, on problems with Philadelphia's court collection efforts (Feb 2012)
CLS attorneys Sharon Dietrich and Rebecca Vallas wrote a policy paper on the problems with Philadelphia's court collection efforts.
Contact Sharon Dietrich at 215-981-3719 or email@example.com; Rebecca Vallas at 215-227-2417 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or Suzanne Young at 215-981-3754 or email@example.com for more information.