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House of Representatives
Session of 2019 - 2020 Regular Session


Posted: January 25, 2019 10:32 AM
From: Representative Donna Bullock
To: All House members
Subject: Court Fines and Fees for the Poor
Imprisoning people for their 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 In recent decades, however, this outdated practice of debtor’s prison has returned to Pennsylvania and around the country as governments increasingly fund the operation of court systems through the collection of fines and fees. This trend has created a system that punishes poor defendants and their families much harsher than wealthier defendants.

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 a 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.

It is time for Pennsylvania 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. We must change our system because imprisonment and license revocation disrupt peoples’ professional and personal lives, making it even less likely that they will be able to pay their debts and move their lives in a positive direction.

I believe our system is broken, counterproductive, costly, and fundamentally unjust. Please join me in making this critical change to our criminal justice system.

Introduced as HB562