Court fees — even for indigent defendants — average more than $1,000 per case across Pennsylvania. The median court costs imposed on indigent defendants in the region range from $537 in Philadelphia County to $1,652 in Delaware County, an ACLU of Pennsylvania analysis found. That’s in addition to fines and restitution the court may impose.
For those who spend years on probation or parole, as Hudson did, costs can pile much higher. In addition to assorted fees — $250 for a DNA detection fund, $50 toward the cost of prosecution, $8 for a judicial computer project, $5 for a firearm training fund — he was assessed almost $800 in supervision fees.
In many cases, these costs appear uncollectible: The ACLU found that among defendants poor enough to be assigned public defenders, court costs were paid in full in just 24% of cases over 10 years. Among non-public-defender cases, 54% had paid in full.
“It tends to be the people who are not paying are the ones who have no ability to pay,” Christy said.
In Philadelphia and other counties, public defenders have been campaigning over the last year for judges to waive court costs for indigent defendants, arguing they are obligated to take defendants’ means into account. That question is now before the state Superior Court, which ruled in September that judges did not have to do so — but recently, unprompted, withdrew that opinion, opting to put the question before a judicial panel for further review.
But costs and fines across Philadelphia and its four suburban counties brought in $273 million over the last 10 years, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts — making them a critical part of courts’ budgets.
And, in some local counties, judges routinely impose punishments on people who can’t or won’t pay, generally without distinguishing between the two.
In Delaware County, dockets show some people have been sentenced 10 times or more on a single case, with sentence conditions emphasizing paying fines, court fees, or restitution. In some cases, the judge threatened detention in the event of a single missed payment. In others, judges promised early termination once costs were paid.
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