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House of Representatives
Session of 2015 - 2016 Regular Session


Posted: April 29, 2016 01:35 PM
From: Representative Leslie Acosta
To: All House members
Subject: Court Fines and Fees for the Poor
In the near future, I will be introducing legislation to end the practices of imprisoning or revoking the driver’s licenses of those who are too poor to pay court fines, fees, and restitution. Incarceration costs the state more money than the collection of fines brings in. Furthermore, imprisonment and license revocation disrupt peoples’ professional and personal lives, making it even more unlikely they will be able to pay what is owed and move their lives in a positive direction.

Under current law, judges have the power to simply issue arrest warrants and incarcerate people for failure to pay fines without even conducting a fair hearing. My proposal will require judges to hold a hearing if an individual has defaulted on the payment of a fine, fee, or restitution. The hearing will help determine if a person is financially able to pay. If paying the fine in full is determined to cause manifest hardship for the defendant or their family, the court will be required to establish an achieveable payment plan, assign community service, or some combination of those two options for the defendant. There will be a standard definition of manifest hardship based upon percentages of the federal poverty level, which varies by household size, to remove subjectivity from the judges’ rulings.

Imprisoning people for the failure to pay debts was a common practice in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, but fell out of favor during the 20th century as our criminal justice system matured. In recent decades, however, this outdated practice has returned as governments increasingly fund the operation of court systems through the collection of fines and fees. A state-by-state survey conducted by National Public Radio (NPR) found that defendants are charged for many government services that were once free, including those that are constitutionally required. For example, in Pennsylvania, offenders can be billed for their probation and parole supervision, and their room and board in prison. Since 2010, 48 states, including Pennsylvania, have increased criminal and civil court fees. These trends have combined to create a system that punishes poor defendants, and their innocent families, much more harshly than wealthier defendants.

An example of how this trend has impacted Pennsylvania is the recent campaign by the Philadelphia Courts to collect decades-old criminal debt. The campaign has targeted nearly 400,000 people, seeking an estimated $1.5 billion in forfeited bail, fees, fines, and restitution dating back to 1971. With former Mayor Michael Nutter’s blessing, the court contracted collection agencies to collect the debt, and continues to jail people for nonpayment.

It is my belief that Pennsylvanians should not be imprisoned or lose their driver’s license simply for being too poor to pay a fine. Doing so is counterproductive, costly, and fundamentally unjust. Therefore, I ask that you join me in support of this necessary reform to our justice system.

Introduced as HB2043