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House of Representatives
Session of 2019 - 2020 Regular Session


Posted: February 21, 2020 03:49 PM
From: Representative Dan L. Miller and Rep. Jason Dawkins
To: All House members
Subject: Compensating victims and providing uniform standards for collecting fines and costs
Despite the best efforts of many, we know that poorer Pennsylvanians are discriminated against in our criminal justice system because they cannot afford to pay fines and costs, whether from minor traffic cases or more serious criminal convictions. Our system lacks the flexibility and direction from the legislature to assist the court in addressing the economic disparities between rich and poor defendants, and the courts are suffering from inadequate funding that would stop the growing reliance of paying for court administration on the back of the defendants who sit before them. The failure of the legislature to act on these issues undermines confidence in the court and forces many Pennsylvanians to languish on probation simply because they are too poor to get off it.

In a series of decisions over the past two years, the Superior Court has repeatedly ruled that courts across Pennsylvania have violated defendants’ fundamental constitutional rights by jailing dozens each month for not paying fines and costs. PennDOT reports that tens of thousands of drivers lose their licenses each year simply because they fall behind on payments of fines and costs. Others face probation revocation or indefinite probation extensions because they are too poor to pay. A 2017 report from the Interbranch Commission on Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Fairness highlighted these problems, and more recent news articles from counties across the state show the toll that unaffordable fines and costs take on individuals and their communities. And even when defendants can pay, the current system takes what money they have and puts it towards court costs rather than making victims whole through restitution.

This bill would address this problem by placing clear guidelines in the law for courts to follow. It would:
  • Ensure that victims receive first priority for any payments, with all money paid by a defendant going first to victim restitution. Only after a victim receives full restitution would a defendant’s payments go towards fines or costs.
  • Require that courts consider a defendant’s ability to pay when imposing fines and costs, as well as clearly defining the circumstances under which a person can be punished for nonpayment. Victims would still receive full restitution, and the bill would also ensure that victims have a place at hearings where restitution has not been paid.
  • Provide clear and objective criteria for what it means to be “able to pay,” based on whether a person is able to meet his or her basic life needs without public assistance.
  • End the costly and counter-productive punishment of suspending a poor Pennsylvania’s driver’s license merely for falling behind on payments, which simply makes it harder for that person to keep a job to pay fines and costs (and which administratively burdens PennDOT).
  • Give courts the much-needed flexibility to reduce or waive fines and costs for defendants who simply cannot afford to pay, as well as making it easier to collect payments by requiring that they accept credit card payments.
There are hundreds of millions of dollars of unpaid fines and costs in Pennsylvania, which is now bad debt. It was imposed on people who would never be able to afford to pay it, it has clogged the dockets of busy courts, and it has kept people on probation when the public interest would otherwise be better served with them off of probation. Experience has shown that tailoring fines and costs to what defendants can afford to pay, and putting them on affordable payment plans, is more effective at collecting fines and costs. It is time to prioritize victim restitution and put an end to the punishment of poor people who simply cannot afford to pay. If you agree, please join us in co-sponsoring this legislation.

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Introduced as HB1952