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Senate of Pennsylvania
Session of 2021 - 2022 Regular Session


Posted: December 1, 2020 01:24 PM
From: Senator Sharif Street
To: All Senate members
Subject: Ending Incarceration of Indigent Unable to Pay Fines, Fees or Restitution
In the near future, I will reintroducing SB69 from the previous session which ends the practice of incarcerating or revoking the driver’s licenses of those who are too poor to pay court fines, fees, and restitution.

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 In recent decades, however, this outdated practice has returned as governments increasingly fund the operation of court systems through the collection of fines and fees. 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.

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. This incarceration 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.

This bill would amend Title 42, Section 9730 (Payment of court costs, restitution and fines) by requiring judges to hold a hearing if an individual has defaulted on the payment. The hearing will help determine if a person is financially able to pay. If paying the fine in full is determined to cause a “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. The measure provides 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.

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 household income. The lower the income, the lower the amount of monthly payment. It also includes a provision that if the court provides for 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.

Pennsylvanians should not be incarcerated 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. If you have questions about this legislation, please contact my Policy Director, Micah Mahjoubian at micah@pasenate.com.

Introduced as SB254