How One Court Double-Dips On Costs And Who Pays The Price

by Mary Catherine Roper and Andrew Christy

It’s no secret that, in far too many ways, the criminal justice system criminalizes being poor. From the widespread use of cash bail, to incarceration as a punishment for a failure to pay parking or traffic tickets or fees associated with probation or parole, the system is tilted against those who are living paycheck to paycheck or struggling to find work.

But even as we work to dismantle systemic injustices in the criminal justice system, some stakeholders are unwilling to go along.

That’s exactly what’s happening in Montgomery County.

In May of 2018, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sent a letter to the 38th Judicial District, which operates the Court of Common Pleas in Montgomery County, warning that the court’s habit of assigning people duplicative costs when they are charged with more than one crime was illegal, and asking it to end the practice.

But instead of doing the right thing, the court doubled down, adopting an internal policy that explicitly allowed the practice to continue.

Nearly a year and a half later, the court continues to assign duplicative costs, overcharging defendants in more than 500 cases since the beginning of 2019.

The practice has had a disproportionate impact on low-income defendants for whom even an extra few hundred dollars of court costs can represent an insurmountable financial barrier that takes years or even decades to pay.

That’s why this week, we filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of five people who were assigned duplicative court costs by the 38th Judicial District. The lawsuit requests an end to the practice and a halt to the collection of any illegal costs that have already been assessed.

The suit could benefit thousands of people who have been overcharged by the 38th Judicial District over the years. If you believe you have been assigned duplicative court costs in Montgomery County, you can submit a complaint to our legal team here.

While Montgomery County is certainly an outlier when it comes to assigning duplicative court costs, it is by no means the only example of the disproportionate impact of costs and fees across the commonwealth.

Late last year, we released the first empirical study of the fines, costs, and restitution imposed and collected by Pennsylvania courts in criminal cases as a first step toward better understanding the disproportionate burden that current practices impose on low-income Pennsylvanians in the criminal legal system. We also continue to work on ending modern-day debtors’ prisons and the use of civil asset forfeiture in the commonwealth.

Pennsylvania has a bloated, redundant criminal legal system that compounds mass incarceration. In Montgomery County and elsewhere in the commonwealth, excessive costs and fees keep people living in poverty stuck in that system. That needs to change. Being poor is not a crime.

Mary Catherine Roper is the deputy legal director and Andrew Christy is the criminal justice and poverty attorney at ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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