Friday, June 13, 2014

The Cautionary Instruction: America’s ‘punishment tax’

Matthew T. Mangino
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
June 13, 2014
Fifty-five-year-old Eileen DiNino died in a Berks County jail last weekend. DiNino’s crime -- failure to pay fines racked up by her son’s truancy. She was in jail because her son didn’t go to school.
The guy that threw her in jail, District Judge Dean R. Patton, told the Reading Eagle, “This woman should not have died alone in prison … Our ultimate goal is not to fine people or put them in jail, but that is the only tool the Legislature has given us when people can’t afford to pay.”
Hundreds of parents, some impoverished and overwhelmed, have been jailed in Pennsylvania for failing to pay court fines that arise from truancy hearings after their children skip school, creating what some call a “debtor’s prison.”
Nationwide, indigent offenders are being jailed if they don’t pay fines and what amount to revenue-producing court costs. In 2010, the Brennan Center for Justice issued a report on Florida’s reliance on fees to fund its courts.
Since 1996, Florida added more than 20 new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants and, at the same time, eliminated most exemptions for those who cannot pay. The process of cranking up fees to pay for courts became known as “cash register justice.”
In fact, some states apply "poverty penalties," such as late fees, payment plan fees and interest, when people are unable to pay all their debts in a lump sum, reported CBS News Moneywatch.
Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee, for instance, while Florida allows private debt collectors to add a 40 percent surcharge on the original debt. In North Carolina people are charged for using a public defender, so indigent defendants who cannot afford an attorney are forced to face jail time without counsel.
According to a 2013 report prepared by the ACLU, The Outskirts of Hope, the inability to pay a fine in Ohio is “the beginning of a protracted process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants and even jail time.”
In some Ohio counties offenders are being jailed because they are too poor to pay fines. That is a violation of federal and state law and the perpetuation of “debtors’ prison.”
All of this, in spite of a 30-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that courts cannot properly revoke a defendant's probation for failure to pay a fine and make restitution, absent evidence that the defendant was willfully refusing to pay.
Like Eileen DeNino, men and women, across the country are being sent to jail simply because they don’t have money. The ever-increasing court fees and costs are not about deterrence, retribution or rehabilitation -- they’re about creating revenue. America has created the “punishment tax” -- and jail cells are routinely being used to collect it.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.
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