Even for something as minor as running a red light or driving with expired inspection stickers, not paying off the citation can result in an arrest warrant, a suspended license and, in extreme cases, jail time.
Throughout the county, there is more than $350 million in unpaid court debt on roughly half a million cases dating back to 1970, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts [AOPC]. The debt includes fines and fees left unpaid by people of all income levels.
Revenue from fines and fees funds multiple levels of government, due in large part to lawmakers imposing court fees as an alternative to raising taxes.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, is the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. According to Baker, there are two reasons the state has added costs and surcharges to the justice system for years. First, the belief that wrongdoers should contribute to the costs of running the legal system and supportive services. And second, the need to generate revenue outside of raising taxes. “This is one of many nontraditional means that have drawn support in enabling our state to provide necessary services and meet public expectations,” she wrote in an email to PublicSource.
Over the past six months, PublicSource spoke to people throughout Allegheny County struggling to pay their court debt on a range of offenses.
One 33-year-old woman from South Side is slowly paying off four traffic tickets from 2009. She estimates she still owes $1,100.
A 46-year-old man who lives in the East End said he owes more than $20,000 in fines and fees related to low-level drug offenses. He is in long-term recovery and is working toward a degree in social work. His last arrest was in 2014.
A 20-year-old University of Pittsburgh student had a warrant issued for his arrest after he ignored an August 2019 citation for driving a friend’s car that didn’t have valid registration or inspection. He is now on a monthly payment plan to settle the $250 charge.
Evans Moore, a Pittsburgh-based organizer for the criminal justice reform organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums [FAMM], said situations where people cannot pay their court debt are too common. “Folks’ lives are being stymied because they can’t pay their fines and fees,” he said. “You get caught in this never-ending cycle of the criminal justice system.”
In 2018, Pennsylvania courts collected $444 million in fines and fees, roughly $35 million of which came from Allegheny County. Even so, the state has some $3 billion in unpaid monies on the books.
While fines are monetary punishment for an offense, fees (also known as costs or surcharges) are administrative charges that counties and states impose as additional sources of revenue. Fees, which fund items ranging from the court’s computer system to emergency medical services, are not meant to be punitive. Yet for many offenses, the cost of fees outweighs the fine, in some cases many times over.
Pittsburgh Magisterial District Judge Richard King said very few people are unable to pay their court costs; they choose not to. Courts can administer payment plans based on what a person is able to pay, sometimes as little as $5 a month.
“They usually always have an ability to pay like $5 a month or something, but they don’t want to do it,” said King whose jurisdiction includes neighborhoods such as Allentown, Beltzhoover and Knoxville.
Yet several judges, including King, agreed that the same cost can have a drastically different impact on different individuals. To people with means, paying $300 is only temporarily inconvenient, said Magisterial District Judge Bruce Boni of McKees Rocks. “But a $300 cost for someone who is virtually indigent can be catastrophic.”
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