Pennsylvania judges often do not explain their decision to jail people over unpaid fines, even though the law prohibits incarceration when a defendant is unable to pay, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette finds.
Is there a resurgence of debtors’ prisons? Some district judges and court officials argue that jailing people over unpaid fines is within the confines of the law, but the American Civil Liberties Union believes that such practices are illegal, harm those jailed and waste public dollars by arresting and imprisoning people who can’t pay, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The ACLU condemns “the arrest and jailing of poor people for failure to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford, through criminal justice procedures that violate their most basic rights.” Defendants convicted of crimes in Pennsylvania, even minor ones, often must pay a host of fines, costs and other fees.
When people don’t pay and fail to respond to a summons, a district judge can issue a warrant for their arrest. 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 University of Pittsburgh law Prof. David Harris. That is not always what happens. A Post-Gazette review of more than 4,500 cases covering everyone jailed in 2016 in Pennsylvania for failure to post collateral (about 2,500 people) shows that in fewer than one in five cases, 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.” 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 judge to another.