Hundreds of "impoverished and overwhelmed" parents have been jailed in Pennsylvania after they failed to pay court fines related to truancy hearings from their children in what appears to be a modern day version of a "debtor's prison."
Eileen DiNino just died in a jail cell Saturday after she had to serve a 48-hour sentence for $2,000 in fines, fees and court costs racked up when her children skipped school.
DiNino had over 55 citations from nine truancy cases, dating all the way back to 1999. Her bill included "a laundry list of routine fees: $8 for a "judicial computer project"; $60 for Berks constables; $40 for "summary costs" for several court offices; and $10 for postage. 'In recent years, the government has found all sorts of interesting ways to extract money from people. The fines can be $20 and the courts costs can be $150,' attorney Richard Guida told the AP.
The AP reports:
"This woman should not have died alone in prison," District Judge Dean R. Patton told The Reading Eagle. "Our ultimate goal is not to fine people or put them in jail, but that is the only tool the Legislature has given us when people can't afford to pay."
In Berks County, P.A. over 1,600 people have been jailed for truancy fines since 2,000 - and over two-thirds of those jailed are women. This happens because they are unable to pay the fines levied.
"This woman died in prison, away from her family, and for what?" Berks County Commissioner Kevin R. Barnhardt, chairman of the county prison board said to Mercury News. "What did she learn from this? What did we learn from this?"
"Some of the pettiest fines when it comes to traffic and the like can really end up screwing up citizens lives in ways far more serious than the initial offense," says Brian Doherty from Reason.com.
These types of fines disproportionately hurt the poor, because they do not have the money to pay them. NPR found that "about a quarter of the people who were in jail for misdemeanor offenses were there because they had failed to pay their court fines and fees."
The growth in the number of people who owe court-imposed monetary sanctions shows up in surveys by the U.S. Department of Justice, too: In 1991, 25 percent of prison inmates said they owed court-imposed costs, restitution, fines and fees. By 2004, the last time the Justice Department did the survey, that number climbed to about 66 percent.