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Tuesday, 17 June 2014 11:45

Criminalizing Poverty: Mother of Seven Dies as Prisoner of Debt

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aaaPrisonCell(Photo: Morty)Last year, I wrote a piece about the rise of Debtors' Prisons in the U.S. The piece focused on how regular people, convicted of relatively minor crimes, were assessed fines by the court that they could not afford to pay, and subsequently were sent off to jail. At this point in this story, I might write something like "meet so and so," one of the many people caught up in the criminal justice system. In this case, however, you will never meet Eileen DiNino.

On June 7, Eileen DiNino, 55, a mother of seven, was found dead in a Berks County, Pennsylvania jail cell.

DiNino's crime? Unemployed, on welfare, and trying to raise seven kids by herself, DiNino was unable to pay several thousand dollars "in fines relating to her children's truancy from schools in the Reading, PA. area," Think Progress' Alan Pyke reported. The fines weren't solely based on her children's truancy. Once individuals get caught in the cycle of fines, it can tend to spin out of control.

According to a World Socialist Web Site report by Samuel Davidson, "An Associated Press examination of Ms. DiNino's fines shows that for one truancy violation $10.00 was added for postage, $60.00 for the county constables and $8.00 for a "computer project."

The 48 hours DiNino was to spend in jail would have supposedly eliminated her debt, Christine DiGangi reported at blog.credit.com.

In a story titled "Impoverished Mother Dies In Jail Cell Over Unpaid Fines For Her Kids Missing School," Pike pointed out that the cause of DiNino's death was "not yet known." Investigators "found no evidence that the death was suspicious," according to the Reading Eagle.

Citing a Reading Eagle report, DiGangi noted that "Parental imprisonment for truancy isn't unheard of in Berks County (northwest of Philadelphia) — since 2000, more than 1,600 people have been jailed there over truancy fines, two-thirds of them women."

District Judge Dean Patton, who sentenced DiNino to jail, told the Reading Eagle that "This woman should not have died alone in prison. 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."

Over the past nearly fifteen years, Alan Pyke reported, "DiNino had been cited 55 times ... according to the Reading Eagle. On top of the individual fines for truancy, the Pennsylvania courts applied a variety of fees that amplified DiNino's debt. 'DiNino's court file shows a laundry list of court fees for one case alone: $8 for a 'judicial computer project'; $60 for Berks County constables; $10 for postage,'" the Associated Press reported.

According to Pyke, "District Judge Dean R. Patton sentenced DiNino to 48 hours in jail after she failed to produce documentary evidence of her inability to pay the more than $2,000 in accrued fines and fees. The sentence could have been as long as 45 days of jail time. 'I bent over backwards for this woman,' Patton told the Eagle, 'but I can't just dismiss her cases without justification.'"

Apparently, DiNino's imprisonment for failure to pay truancy fines is nothing new. According to the AP, thousands of people have been jailed and remarkably, two out of three jailed are women.

Criminalizing Poverty

Alan Pyke pointed out that "the criminalization of poverty is a much broader national phenomenon, with court costs and fees magnifying the statutory penalties for a variety of minor infractions such that the financial penalty snowballs into an un-payable debt for low-income people."

A year-long investigation by National Public Radio found that although debtors prisons were "outlawed in the United State nearly 200 years ago," and that the Supreme Court ruled that "judges cannot send people to jail just because they are too poor to pay their court fines," there are loopholes judges can take advantage of.

Since, according to NPR, "the Supreme Court didn't tell courts how to determine what it means to 'willfully' not pay. ... it's left to judges to make the sometimes difficult calculations." And, as might be expected different judges use different criteria to determine who should be sent to jail and how long their sentence should be.

NPR reported that: "Some judges will tell an offender to give up their phone service, or quit smoking cigarettes — and use the money instead to pay court debt. Some judges will tell people to get the money from family members or to use Temporary Aid to Needy Family checks, Social Security disability income, veterans' benefits or other welfare checks to pay their court fees first — or else face going to jail."

And, there may very well be additional fees charged to defendants: "In at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays; in at least 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision; and in 49 states, there's a fee for the electronic bracelet that monitors people when they're out of jail.

"The survey also found, with the help of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, that in least 43 states, defendants can be billed for a public defender."

"Common Court Fees":

Pre-conviction -- Application fee to obtain public defender; Jail fee for pretrial incarceration; Jury fees; Rental fee for electronic monitoring devices.

Sentencing -- Fines, with accompanying surcharges; Restitution; Fees for court administrative costs; Fees for designated funds (e.g. libraries, prison construction, etc.); Public defender reimbursement fees; Prosecution reimbursement fees.

Incarceration -- Fees for room and board in jail and prison; Health care and medication fees.

Probation, parole or other supervision -- Probation and parole supervision fees; Drug testing fees; Vehicle interlock device fees (DUIs); Rental fee for electronic monitoring devices; Mandatory treatment (includes drug and alcohol,) therapy and class fees.

Poverty penalties – Interest; Late fees; Payment plan fees; Collection fees.

Source: Brennan Center for Justice and NPR

If offenders cannot pay those fees, they are often likely to be shipped off to jail. According to NPR, "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." Apparently 80-85 percent "of inmates now leave prison owing these costs."

NPR'S Joseph Shapiro reported that the so-called War on Crime, initiated in the 1970s, followed by the 1980s War on Drugs, led to "the number of people behind bars in the U.S. jump[ing] 700 percent. Jails, prisons and courtrooms became overcrowded. And the costs of running them, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, rose from $6 billion for states in 1980 to more than $67 billion a year in 2010."

Thus, states started charging all kinds of fees to make up for its shortfall. Eileen DiNino paid for that shortfall with her life.