Woman Dies in Jail Because She Failed to Pay a Fine—For Her Child's Truancy From School


Some monstrous policy out of Pennsylvania, from Associated Press via the Pottstown Mercury News, a land where there is no such thing as debtors prison for the poor unless that debt is to the government, that institution that only monsters question because after all it's there to help the poor:

Hundreds of parents, some impoverished and overwhelmed, have been jailed in Pennsylvania for failing to pay court fines that arise from truancy hearings after their children skip school, creating what some call a "debtor's prison" for people like Eileen DiNino.

DiNino, 55, of Reading, was found dead in a jail cell Saturday morning, hours after she surrendered to serve a 48-hour sentence.

She had racked up $2,000 in fines, fees and court costs since 1999 as the Reading School District tried to keep her children in class, most recently at a vocational high school.

Died alone in prison. Over truancy.

More than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone — where Reading is the county seat—over truancy fines since 2000, more than two-thirds of them women, the newspaper reported….

Language barriers can also be an issue for letters and phone calls between the parents and school, given that the vast majority of the city and school population is Hispanic, Guida said.

…the fines handed down by judges were typically small, perhaps $20. The debt adds up, he said, over court costs and fees. In one case alone involving DiNino, 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.

As I wrote about back in January in "Petty Law Enforcement vs. the Poor" and again last month, focusing specifically on the whole "multiplying court fees" matter that helped Ms. DiNino die in a cell, 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. (Not to mention the stickier question of the ethical status of an entity that makes sure it gets its pound of flesh from any debtor by literally locking them up as punishment for not paying off.)

It's not a topic that political scientists and sociologists have gathered a lot of data on, as near as I've been able to tell, but let's add this set of anecdotes from Pennsylvania to "the state will behave with monstrous lack of mercy to the least well-off among us."