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Pennsylvania House of Representatives
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House of Representatives
Session of 2021 - 2022 Regular Session


Posted: January 12, 2021 09:49 AM
From: Representative Donna Bullock
To: All House members
Subject: Court Fines and Fees for the Poor
In the 18th and 19th centuries, imprisoning people for their failure to pay debts was common practice throughout the United States, falling out of favor during the 20th century with the maturation of our justice system. However, this outdated form of a debtor’s prison has returned to Pennsylvania and around the country as governments increasingly fund the operation of court systems through the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, creating a system that disproportionately punishes impoverished individuals and their families.

To combat this, my legislation would require judges to hold a hearing if an individual has defaulted on the payment of a fine, fee, or restitution. The hearing would help determine if a person is financially able to pay and, if paying the fine in full is determined to cause manifest hardship for the defendant or their family, the court would be required to establish a payment plan, assign community service, or some combination of those two options for the defendant. Also included in the language is a standard definition of “manifest hardship” based upon percentages of the federal poverty level, which varies by household size, to remove subjectivity from the 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.

It is our duty to change this broken, counterproductive, costly, and fundamentally unjust system. Please join me in cosponsoring this much-needed legislation.

Introduced as HB1087