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Senate of Pennsylvania
Session of 2017 - 2018 Regular Session


Posted: September 6, 2017 04:17 PM
From: Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf
To: All Senate members
Subject: Criminal Justice Debt: Fines and Fees and the Indigent
I plan to introduce legislation to end the practice of incarcerating or revoking the driver’s license of individuals who are too poor to pay court fines, fees, and restitution.

The fines and court fees being imposed on individuals, especially the indigent, could result in imprisonment for failure to pay, which ends up costing government more money than what is collected. In addition, incarceration and license revocation makes it harder for individuals to pay their criminal justice debt and move their life in a positive direction.

Imprisoning people for the failure to pay criminal justice debt 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 In recent decades, however, this outdated practice has returned as governments increasingly fund the operation of court systems through the collection of fines and fees. In 2014, National Public Radio did a series called “Guilty and Charged”, an investigative series into the growing trend of fines and fees within the criminal justice system that often places an uneven financial burden on poor Americans. Some of the findings from their investigation include: 1) Impoverished people sometimes go to jail when they fall behind paying these fees; 2) Since 2010, 48 states (including Pennsylvania) have increased criminal and civil fines; and 3) Many courts struggle to interpret a 1983 Supreme Court ruling protecting defendant from going to jail because they are too poor to pay their fines.

In 2010, the Brennan Center for Justice at NY Univ. School of Law issued a report called “Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry”. The report examined 15 states, including Pennsylvania, with the highest prison population and focused on the growth of user fees and the financial obligations imposed. The Executive Summary states “Many states are imposing new and often onerous “user fees” on individuals with criminal convictions. Yet, far from being easy money, these fees impose a severe - and often hidden - costs on communities, taxpayers, and indigent people convicted of crimes. They create new paths to prison for those unable to pay their debts and make it harder to find employment and housing as well to meet child support obligations.” Some key findings from the report include: 1) Inability to pay leads to more fees and an endless cycle of debt; and 2) Although “debtors’ prison” is illegal in all states, reincarcerating individuals for failure to pay debt is, in fact, common in some – and in all states new paths back to prison are emerging for those who owe criminal justice debt.

Under current law, judges have the authority to simply issue arrest warrants and incarcerate people for failure to pay fines without even conducting a fair hearing. The bill would amend Title 42, Section 9730 (Payment of court costs, restitution and fines) by requiring (“shall” not a “may”) judges to hold a hearing if a defendant defaults on payment. The hearing will help determine if a person is financially able to pay. If payment of the fine in full is determined to cause a “manifest hardship”, the bill now requires the court to provide for installment payments and adds community service or a combination of both as an option. The measure provides for a standard definition of “manifest hardship” which includes household income below a certain percentage of the federal poverty level, to remove the subjectivity from the judges’ ruling.

The measure also amends Section 9758(b) (Installment payments) by adding a new paragraph which sets forth the amount of payment per month a defendant would pay based on his household income. The lower the income, the lower the amount of monthly payment (e.g., 100% or lower of Federal poverty level = not more than $100 per month payment). It also includes a provision that if the court provides or an alternative sentence for nonpayment, a person sentenced to community service shall be assigned one hour of service for each $20 of unpaid balance of the fine and costs. Finally, the bill amends Title 75, Section 1533 (suspension of operating privilege for failure to pay fines, costs or restitution) by providing for an exception to license suspension for a defendant whose fines cause manifest hardship while requiring them to pay the fine in installments or through an alternative sentence.

This measure will avoid incarcerating or revoking the driver’s license of individuals who do not have the ability to pay fines and fees. It is counterproductive, costly and fundamentally unfair. This is a companion bill to Representative Donna Bullock’s proposal, House Bill 510.

Introduced as SB1036