Tens of thousands of suspected criminals know something their victims and other law abiding citizens would never imagine. They might be able to escape punishment merely by slipping across a state line. These suspects don't even have to hide. Authorities won't come to get them, even if they're arrested on another charge.
There are more than 186,000 of them — fugitives formally designated as immune from extradition because police and prosecutors don't want to spend the time or money to retrieve them from another state, a USA TODAY investigation found. These determinations, wrote reporter Brad Heath, are almost always made in secret and leave the fugitives' "crimes unpunished, their victims outraged and the public at risk."
With no one chasing them, many suspects go on to rob, assault or even kill.
OPPOSING VIEW: Fixing the system
Lamont Pride, a fugitive from Greensboro, N.C., had a no-extradition designation from authorities there when New York police arrested him on a drug charge in 2011. Greensboro officials say they later changed their minds, but not fast enough. Pride appeared in a Brooklyn court and was freed. Within a month, he shot and killed a New York City police detective during a botched robbery.
Because Pride killed a law enforcement officer, the case briefly sparked an uproar. But more than two years later, little has changed. Fugitives have been left to roam free across the country after authorities from Atlanta to Los Angeles declared them unwanted. Incredibly, Los Angeles police said they would not extradite 77 people wanted for murder or attempted murder. Tight budgets are making many jurisdictions even more reluctant to bring back fugitives from other jurisdictions.
Few places present as stark a picture of the problem as Philadelphia, a city where the crime rate is high and authorities have decided not to collect 93% of their wanted felons — about 20,000 suspects — even from as close as Camden, N.J., three subway stops from the city's courthouse.
Using court records and police reports, USA TODAY tracked 572 of these fugitives and found six of them responsible for killing seven people in other states. One victim was a 1-month-old girl hurled against a wall by her father.
A Philadelphia prosecutor, among the few willing to discuss decisions not to extradite, blamed several factors, including an overburdened criminal justice system that frees too many suspects with little or no bond who, instead, should await trial in jail. Extradition is complicated, costly and time-consuming, he and others said.
That excuse is simultaneously true and absurd. Yes, the system is overloaded, but that's hardly a reason for secretly designating easily seized fugitives as not worth retrieving just because they are arrested elsewhere. If extradition is too complicated, then prosecutors ought to seek new laws to streamline the process. But they can't just continue to ignore dangerous criminals who could be quickly jailed.
As a result of the USA TODAY investigation, police and prosecutors in several jurisdictions are reconsidering their extradition practices. Well they should. Suspects who flee are the kind of offenders who most need to be taken off the streets.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.