The Philadelphia criminal justice system has one of the highest fugitive rates in the country, with several studies showing over 30 percent of criminal defendants failing to appear in court. Fugitivity is a complicated phenomenon, but it is clear that one factor contributing to Philadelphia’s high fugitivity rate is that defendants know there are few meaningful consequences for failing to appear in court. Trial in absentia — proceeding to trial without the defendant’s presence — is an effective remedy, but a defendant’s constitutional right to be present at trial must be protected. A critical component to ensuring a fair trial to a defendant who deliberately absents from trial is a showing that the defendant knew the consequences of absconding, i.e., that trial would go forward without him or her.
As an interim report by the First Judicial District Reform Initiative states, Philadelphia’s high rate of fugitivity undermines the criminal justice system in at least three ways. First, it wastes judicial and law enforcement resources when a case is ready to go forward but the defendant has failed to appear. Second, it preys on victims and witnesses, who bear a significant emotional and financial burden by having to wait, perhaps for years, until the defendant is captured to testify, and this can lead to witness noncooperation and cases being dismissed. Third, it undermines public confidence in the criminal justice system, enhances witness intimidation and ultimately increases the likelihood that other defendants will become fugitives as well.
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