Debtors’ prisons exist in Pennsylvania, too

By Andrew Christy, Independence Foundation Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Debtors’ prisons, which bring to mind Dickensian depictions of Victorian England, are supposed to be a thing of the past. But cash-strapped municipalities and judicial systems increasingly pile on extra fees and surcharges to even the most minor court proceedings in an effort to balance their budgets. In Pennsylvania, these surcharges can more than double the cost of a traffic ticket or low level citation. When defendants cannot come up with the money, courts — including in Pennsylvania — waste no time in jailing them.

As awareness grows about modern-day debtors’ prison practices, so too does the movement to end them. On Friday, the National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail Practices — part of the National Center for State Courts — issued a Bench Card on the Lawful Collection of Legal Financial Obligations. The “bench card” is a guide for judges on what they should and should not do when trying to collect these debts from people with limited means. This Bench Card was adopted through a vote by the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA), with a CCJ resolution encouraging “inclusion of the Bench Card into the judicial education curricula created by each State for new judges and for experienced judges . . .”

In recent years, an investigation by the United States Department of Justice and lawsuits in places like Biloxi, Mississippi, and Ferguson, Missouri, have shown that tens of thousands of indigent individuals around the country are jailed every year because they are too poor to pay their court fines and costs.

With funding from the Independence Foundation, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has launched an investigation of debtors’ prison practices in this state. Data from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, as well as fieldwork by ACLU staff, has uncovered thousands of cases each year in which Pennsylvanians are jailed for failure to pay court fines and costs. While the ACLU’s investigation is ongoing, it is clear that in many of these cases, the defendant could not have been jailed as punishment for the offense, but they are ending up in jail anyway when they cannot pay the fines and costs. Summary offenses like disorderly conduct and most traffic violations carry no jail sentence, but the combination of fines and costs can easily run into the hundreds of dollars, imposing a hardship on many individuals.

The new bench card shows judges how to put into practice rulings from both the United States and Pennsylvania Supreme Courts that people cannot be jailed if they really cannot afford to pay what they owe the court. For example, the Bench Card advises judges that they should not require any immediate payment from someone whose income is below 125% of the federal poverty level; that they should consider reducing the amount owed if a defendant is unable to pay it; and that a lawyer must be provided for anyone facing possible jail time for failure to pay.

The Superior Court has said, “Courts do not imprison the poor solely for their inability to pay fines.” The new Bench Card can help Pennsylvania judges to make that promise a reality.


(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Steve Gotzler (left) and his mentee, Jermaine Myers, are part of the Pennsylvania Prison Society’s mentoring program. Photo from The Inquirer.
  • From The Inquirer: “Could this one simple idea stop the revolving door to prison?”

“Mentoring is an old-school solution to a historically vexing puzzle: how to manage prison reentry in a state where 60 percent of people are locked up again within three years of being released. It’s not flashy or even, at this point, particularly novel. But early results are promising. The program, run by the Pennsylvania Prison Society through a contract with the state Department of Corrections (DOC), has worked with more than 200 people leaving Chester and Graterford state prisons since launching as a pilot in July 2015. Only two have been arrested again, according to [former ACLU-PA staffer] Steve Gotzler, the program’s coordinator. It is a small component of an extensive investment — $10.4 million this fiscal year — in reentry services by the DOC, which in 2013 began contracting with providers to address challenges like employment, housing assistance, drug and alcohol treatment and family reunification. Since July 1, 2016, the department has committed just $80,774 of that for mentoring services, according to Teresa Pinard, a deputy director in the DOC’s Department of Community Corrections. Now, Gotzler is working to take the Prison Society’s mentoring program statewide.”

  • From Law Enforcement Leaders: “Fighting crime and strengthening criminal justice: An agenda for the new administration”

“We need not use arrest, conviction, and prison as the default response for every broken law. For many nonviolent and first-time offenders, prison is not only unnecessary from a public safety standpoint, it also endangers our communities. Once inmates are released, they struggle to find employment, housing, and other necessities that would re-integrate them into society. Facing few legitimate opportunities, many ex-offenders return to crime. The higher the incarceration rate for such offenders, the less safe the citizenry.”

  • From BuzzFeed: “I always want them to feel safe and be safe”

“America’s mental health system is ailing — states were forced to cut more than $4 billion in public mental health funding following the 2008 recession. And jails and prisons have become the de facto mental health hospitals, with officers as the first point of entry. Today, police departments are more accustomed to fielding calls dealing with mental illness than in decades past. Over 2,000 police departments across the country now offer Crisis Intervention Team training, which teaches officers to identify signs of mental illness, and how to efficiently and safely get someone in crisis into the care of a mental health professional. (Despite these trainings, about a quarter of the people killed by police officers in 2015 had a severe mental illness.) And even if the Trump administration cuts funds to experiment with trauma-informed initiatives, the movement is now grassroots. (All of the funding for TRT is from Milwaukee city and county.)”

  • From WESA: “[Pa.] Senate To Vote On Amber Alert-Style Notification System For Injured Police Officers”

“When a child is abducted, millions of Pennsylvanians are asked to help through the Amber Alert system. State Representative Dom Costa, D-Allegheny, is hoping to use a similar system when a police officer is hurt. Costa’s bill creating an ‘Officer Down Advisory’ system, known as HB-31, was approved by the state House this week and is awaiting action in the Senate. Costa said in the case of an injured officer, enlisting the help of every citizens is a must. ‘Let’s face it, when someone is out there that has harmed an armed police officer, they are an extreme danger to the public and other officers,’ Costa said. ‘So we want to apprehend that person as quickly as possible.’”

THE APPEALThe Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

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We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.