Criminal Justice

More than 186,000 fugitives escape justice because no one wants to pursue extradition

Crossing a state border proved to be a good move for more than 186,000 fugitives.

A confidential FBI database used to track outstanding warrants indicates that officials don’t want to spend the time or money to extradite 186,873 fugitives when they are arrested for other alleged crimes, according to a multipart investigative series by USA Today.

Among those who won’t be pursued: a man accused of hacking a roommate’s neck with a machete during a fight over a beer in Florida, a man accused of drawing a gun in a Virginia store robbery, and a man identified as one of Pittsburgh’s most wanted fugitives.

When a suspect does not waive extradition, a state needs a court order and the signature of its governor and the governor of the state where the suspect is arrested. “It’s not as simple as they walk up to the middle of the Ben Franklin Bridge and we meet them and bring them back,” said prosecutor John Delaney, who supervises the trial division of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office. “State borders are significant,” he told USA Today.

Faced with tight budgets, states are restricting the kinds of crimes for which they will seek extradition, USA Today says. Many police agencies don’t even enter all their fugitives’ names into the FBI database. Some states enter the names and say they will extradite, but they don’t send anyone to pick up a fugitive when he or she is found.

In Philadelphia, police and prosecutors have opted against extraditing 93 percent of the city’s wanted felons, USA Today says. Even those who live in nearby Camden, N.J., can escape serious charges.

Laurie Malone, the deputy district attorney who supervises extradition in Philadelphia, told USA Today the decision not to extradite is complex. “These questions are all legitimate and they’re all very good ones,” Malone said, “but there are some that I just can’t give you good, solid answers that can be understood by the average layperson who does not work in this system and does not understand the full weight of this job.”

Later, she said the call from USA Today spurred a review and prosecutors have now approved extradition for several hundred suspects. The court system also took new steps to track fugitives, the story says. Now, when a fugitive is located in another state, the court system sends a letter to the fugitive asking him to turn himself in. Most decline.

Roanoke, Va., rape suspect Jerry Lee Wiggins was never extradited after his arrest on a charge—later dropped—that he had stolen a car. Roanoke Commonwealth Attorney Donald Caldwell said he didn’t extradite Wiggins because he “did not feel our case had been particularly strong.”

“When I look at it,” Caldwell said, “I just use the global generic taxpayer. It’s still my tax dollars bringing him back. As an elected official, I think you’ve got an obligation to consider that.”

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