Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Not Meant for Jail Keep 'Debtor's Prison' an Archaic Idea

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Not Meant for Jail Keep 'Debtor's Prison' an Archaic Idea

Article excerpt

While the law allows defendants to be jailed for willfully refusing to pay fines and court costs, it prohibits judges from locking people up when they do not have the means to pay. Unfortunately, that distinction is lost on some jurists, who at times can't even be bothered to fill out paperwork properly before jailing destitute defendants over Mickey Mouse sums.

As the Post-Gazette's Kate Giammarise and Christopher Huffaker reported Sunday, the practice, documented among magisterial district judges and Common Pleas judges, is concerning on various fronts. Defendants are supposed to receive equal justice under the law; that's why there are sentencing guidelines for criminal offenses. But some judges are more likely than others to jail defendants for failure to pay fines and costs, a vagary with constitutional implications.

Then there's the stark inhumanity of punishing people because they are poor. In 2016, District Judge Carolyn Bengel of Brackenridge jailed defendants in 79 cases for"failure to post collateral"- that is, failing to put up some of the money they owed prior to hearings on their cases. In Allegheny County, only the judges collectively presiding in Municipal Court jailed people more often- in 84 cases - for that reason. Among those Judge Bengel jailed was an unemployed woman with a broken arm and a $138.50 speeding ticket.

Judges should acquaint themselves with a University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics report, issued last year, which criticized law-enforcement and judicial officials for routinely putting people in Allegheny County Jail when alternative arrangements would have better served the offenders and the taxpayers. Incarceration is expensive, and it should be reserved mainly for violent criminals, not people whose hardscrabble lives preclude them from paying traffic tickets. Because of the low-level nature of the offense, many defendants didn't even have attorneys present when they were ordered to jail for non-payment of fines. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.