It is 2014, and a Pennsylvania woman died in jail this past weekend. Eileen DiNino was discovered dead on Saturday night in her cell in Berk’s county jail. This 55 year old mother of seven children was serving a two day sentence that would have cancelled approximately $2,000 in fines and court fees due to her children’s attendance at school.
The sentencing judge, District Judge Dean Patton stated that he was “reluctant to jail DiNino. The judge added, “We don’t do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago.” However, public records have revealed that 1,600 Americans, the majority were women, have been incarcerated the past several years in Berk County, because of similar fines.
The Judge also stated, “She cared about her kids, but her kids ruled the roost. In past court appearances, the judge noted that she was often unkempt, but she came for sentencing clean and neat. Eileen DiNino had on clean sweatpants, her hair was combed, and tape was holding her glasses together.
Is this sad ending of a mother’s life in jail just unique to Pennsylvania? No, debtors prisons do exist in the United States. There are two systems of justice in our country. If you have money, a defendant can avoid jail where fines and/or restitution were the issues before the court.
Approximately one third of U.S. states today have jailed people for not paying off their debts, from court-related fines and fees to credit card and car loans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Such practices contravene a 1983 United States Supreme Court ruling that they violate the Constitutions’s Equal Protection Clause.
A number of states order “poverty penalties,” such as late fees, payment plan fees and interest, when people are unable to pay all their debts at once. Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee, while Florida allows private debt collectors to add a 40 percent surcharge on the original debt. Some Florida counties used so-called collection courts, where debtors were jailed and have no right to a public defender. The ACLU of Ohio reported a case involving a mother of three who was jailed for ten days for not paying $540 in fines and costs due to a conviction for driving while suspended. The taxpayers in the end paid almost $1,000 for the cost of arresting her and jailing her.
According to “Pay the Rent or Face Arrest: Abusive Impacts of Arkansas’ Criminal Evictions Law,” a report from Human Rights Watch, hundreds of tenants have faced criminal charges each year for not paying their rent on time or for failing to vacate their rented homes on time. Tenants were arrested at home or at work. Tenants were incarcerated for rental defaults. A district judge in An Arkansas court – compared one female tenant to a “bank robber.”
If Eileen DiNino was not a poor debtor, she would not have died in a jail cell alone because of the crime of unpaid school fines.
By Bradley Schwartz
Founder of prisonpath.com