« Is Henry Montgomery of Montgomery v. Louisiana perhaps on the verge of a parole grant? UPDATE: NO by 2-1 vote by parole board | Main | "Conservatives urge Trump to grant pardons in Russia probe" »

February 19, 2018

Spotlighting disparities in jail stays over unpaid court fines in Pennsylvania

A helpful reader made sure I saw this impressive piece of reporting from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the headline "Modern-day debtors’ prisons? The system that sends Pennsylvanians to jail over unpaid court costs and fines."  I have probably not given as much attention here as I should to reporting and complaints about persons being incarcerated for failure to pay certain fines and fees, and this story caught my attention in its discussion of disparities in how judges justify sending folks to jail for failures to pay.  Here is an excerpt for that discussion:

U.S. Supreme Court and state court precedents forbid the government from locking up defendants too poor to pay.  District judges are supposed to jail only defendants who can afford to pay but “willfully” do not.  “The Constitution is very clear, the law is very clear, you cannot be jailed for failing to pay when you can’t pay,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

But data show that is not always what happens.

People picked up on warrants for not paying court fees are brought before a district judge, who can hold an immediate payment determination hearing or postpone the proceeding. If the hearing is delayed, the district judge can set an amount that must be paid as collateral in order to allow the defendant to go free; that is supposed to ensure that the defendant will return for the hearing.  In many cases, that collateral equals the total payments owed.  Defendants who do not pay can be jailed until the first business day after 72 hours have passed.

District judges must fill out a Determination of Collateral form indicating why collateral is necessary and why the defendant can afford to pay it.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of more than 4,500 cases covering everyone jailed in 2016 in Pennsylvania for failure to post collateral (about 2,500 individuals) shows that in fewer than one in five cases, district judges appear to meet the standard in explaining why payment can be made.  They use statements such as “defendant has bank account” or “defendant has been working” or “gainfully employed.”

But in over 10 percent of cases involving more than 200 people, the district judges’ explanations for why a defendant can pay collateral seem to indicate just the opposite — that they don’t have the wherewithal.  Among the rationales: “defendant has no income; “defendant is homeless unable to pay; and “defendant has been evicted.”

The data show the system for meting out jail stays over unpaid court fines is wildly inconsistent among the state’s 67 counties and varies from one district judge to another....

The ACLU has been taking up cases around the state where it believes the law is not being followed in regard to payment determination hearings. It also has reached out to judges and district judges in an effort to make systemic changes.  “[M]any judges on both the courts of Common Pleas and magisterial district courts fundamentally misunderstand what constitutes a defendant’s ability to pay,” Andrew Christy, an ACLU of Pennsylvania attorney wrote regarding payment determination hearings last year for a legal publication.  A “lack of clear and uniform standards on what constitutes ability to pay” has been problematic and has driven the system to be unconstitutional, he wrote.

In many cases, the district judge offers rationales that the ACLU claims do not pass legal muster as to why a defendant should be able to post collateral.  The explanations include that the defendant’s family can pay; that the defendant receives public benefits; or that they have spent money on other expenses, such as tattoos.  “Has money for cigarettes, cell phone and to drink in bars,” read one form.  “Has cell phone, smokes cigarettes and has an I pad [sic],” read another.

February 19, 2018 at 04:35 PM | Permalink


The return of the lash would solve this problem. The lash would deter law breaking by specific PTSD and by general PTSD.

Posted by: David Behar | Feb 20, 2018 1:46:08 AM

I urge all law students to spend a morning in local traffic court. The Rules of the Road affect the greatest number of people in our country. Naturally, I am not aware of any law school course covering traffic law. You will see nothing you learned in criminal procedure. And nothing you see will have been covered in your law school course.

You will see a money making machine, spinning at around $10,000 an hour. In one New Jersey court, everyone pled to careless driving, $400 and no points, in 2 minutes. Everyone was grateful, and thanked the judge. The judge saw people who could not pay via video link in jail, and kicked them out of jail, immediately. Jail for most of these people was an upgrade in lifestyle and a reward, not a punishment. Everyone was forced to come at 9 AM. If you wanted a trial, trials started at 1 PM. That means you lost a day of work, costing more than the fine. Officers did not show up, and continuances were automatically granted to the prosecution, meaning the defendant had to lose another day of work. One argued about it, and was surrounded by 4 thugs holding their tasers. He got the message. I offered to file a complaint with the judicial review board, because the judge was screaming. He begged me not to, since he had to keep driving around those parts.

Posted by: David Behar | Feb 20, 2018 10:16:03 AM

That day, a vindictive divorced wife accused her husband of stealing a car. They exported cars to Russia. Selling and shipping cars was their business. The entire criminal trial took 15 minutes. The judge's verdict was, no car theft, but sending a car to Russia was car exporting. He did not sanction the wife for her retaliatory false accusation. Documents were reviewed, witnesses testified and were cross examined in a total of 20 minutes, start to verdict. Then the judge got back to the spinning money making machine.

And, yes, defense lawyers were like potted plants in that court. They got fees for offers that were automatic anyway.

Posted by: David Behar | Feb 20, 2018 10:34:12 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB