Debtors Prison, Pennsylvania-Style

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Emma Jacobs brings to our attention a very serious abuse of pre-trial detention that is not only unjust, but also a ridiculous waste of the criminal justice system’s resources.

According to court records, Lawrence sent people to jail 228 times from 2011 through the middle of December 2013 for “failure to pay collateral.” That’s money paid in advance of a plea, used here sort of like bail to make sure defendants attend the hearing to contest the ticket or the fine they’re asked to pay. These could be traffic tickets, having an open container in public or failing to keep your dog on a leash.

Wodarski and a half-dozen other defendants contacted said they were sent to jail for costs they didn’t have the money to pay.

This is illegal, according to Vic Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

“What is perfectly clear under both the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure is that you cannot send someone to jail if they cannot afford to pay the fine,” Waldzak said, “because that’s the equivalent of having a debtor’s prison — of putting someone in jail simply because they’re poor.”

To piggyback on this, a big problem on the other end of PA’s prison pipeline is how we charge ex-offenders the cost of their incarceration, so they emerge from prison deeply in debt. And if they can’t pay, we throw them back in jail! If we want to reduce repeat offenses, this is probably the stupidest policy we could have.

This entry was posted in Civil Rights.

2 Responses to Debtors Prison, Pennsylvania-Style

  1. Squarian says:

    And yet another ringing endorsement of PA’s system of magisterial district justices, the unreformed network of quasi-amateur judges hardly changed from the days when Squire Weston and his rubicund-faced, port-swilling fellow Justices of the Peace reinforced their authority over their tenants, dispensed justice on the village green, sent drunkards to the stocks and poachers to the colonies.

    How little changed is PA’s district magistracy? In the days of Squire Weston and his ilk, local “bigwigs” were JPs by virtue of their hereditary social position – the seat on the bench came with the manor and the broad acres.

    And now? Bigwigs in Montgomery County are JPs, well, by virtue of their hereditary social position. “Lawrence’s father was a district judge and councilman. ‘The Lawrence family — I don’t think there’s any other family that has so many people involved in public service,’ said former borough police chief Hank Cisco. When Mother Teresa came to Norristown, Francis Lawrence Sr. organized the whole event. Lawrence’s sister was a councilwoman until earlier this month. His brother was recently a finalist for police chief.”

    But wait – bluff old Squire Weston may have known almost nothing about the law, he may have used his judicial power indiscriminately, he may have bent the rules now and then – but at least he knew the little people!

    And in Norris, PA, nothing much has changed since the days of Tom Jones: “Norristown needs this type of, not only judge, but police officers,” said Cisco. “They have to know the people.” He said this familiarity makes Lawrence a better judge.

    Pennsylvania – Where history comes alive!