Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

State Senator to Introduce Legislation to Address 'Debtors Prisons'

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

State Senator to Introduce Legislation to Address 'Debtors Prisons'

Article excerpt

State Sen. Guy Reschenthaler said Friday that he plans to introduce legislation as early as next week in response to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's reporting on the systemic practice of jailing people for being too poor to pay court costs and fines.

Mr. Reschenthaler, a Republican who represents parts of Allegheny and Washington counties, said his bill will allow magisterial district judges to require community service in lieu of fines for traffic violations.

The inability to offer community service in traffic cases was one of the biggest issues raised by district judges who were questioned about the practice of jailing people for failure to post collateral in cases in which the defendant is too poor to pay outstanding fines and court costs.

"One of the biggest problems is that we can't give community service for traffic violations," District Judge Richard King, president of the Allegheny County Special Court Judges Association, said Thursday.

Mr. Reschenthaler, a former district judge himself, said, "Judges should have as many tools in the toolkit as possible, and one of those tools should be community service."

"I didn't realize just how systemic it was until I read that article," Mr. Reschenthaler said. "In my court, we always used other options."

Using data from the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts, the Post-Gazette found hundreds of cases throughout 2016 in which district judges appeared to have jailed someone after finding the person unable to pay, and many more in which the facts given proving ability to pay appeared entirely unrelated to the question.

"It's unconstitutional to send anybody to jail because they cannot pay a fine. No one should go to jail because they're poor," Mr. Reschenthaler underscored.

He had not yet broached the issue with other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he sits on, but said that as one of the two members of the Senate who is a former member of the judiciary, "I think I will have strong support. …

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