“It was a short and sweet hearing,” stated Lancaster County Constable Karl Salisbury. “The judge said, ‘you owe $2,300 collateral. You’re being committed to Lancaster County Prison.’”
Salisbury then took bookstore owner Melody Williams, 36, to jail with no time to get her affairs in order. Williams’ June 2012 incarceration resulted from her failure to completely pay $2,300 in fines for 11 tickets, most of which were for parking without a permit near her store, Winding Way Books.
While trying to keep her business afloat, Williams fell behind on paying the fines. In 2011 she paid a total of $1,088. For the first five months of 2012 she paid an average of $135 per month, and just an hour before Salisbury came to arrest her she had paid $80 on the arrears.
“Parking tickets shouldn’t be something they come and take you away for,” said Lancaster criminal defense attorney Richard MacDonald.
District Judge Bruce Roth, whose staff set up the payment plan for Williams, had no sympathy for her. “She just pushed it too far,” he said. “She had too many payment plans that she defaulted on, too many hearings she didn’t show up for. She had established herself as hopelessly unreliable.”
For each day behind bars, Williams earned $40 credit toward her fines. That would mean 47 days before her debt was paid in full. Thanks to her landlord, however, Williams served only eight days. “The whole thing seems screwy to me,” said Dennis Cox, who paid $1,500 to obtain Williams’ release. “I thought debtor’s prison went out with Charles Dickens.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.20].
Attorneys point out that state law was not followed prior to Williams’ imprisonment. Rule 456 of the Pennsylvania code requires the court to set a hearing to determine ability to pay when fines or costs are in default; a date to report is then set if the judge imposes a jail term unless an appeal is filed within 30 days. Also, counsel is to be appointed for indigents in such cases under Rule 122. Williams said she was not informed of those rules.
When asked whether justice had been served by incarcerating Williams, Judge Roth replied, “This was a harsh form of justice. I hope this was a wakeup call for her and a message to the citizens to please pay your tickets.”
County Commissioner Scott Martin questioned the wisdom of imprisoning people for failure to pay fines – particularly sending them to the Lancaster County Prison, which is overcrowded. “That hard cell space is very valuable to us,” he noted. “We need to take a look at how we handle the cases of those who owe money.”
Lancaster attorney Steven Breit observed that a more basic issue was involved. “What you’re looking at here is ‘does the punishment fit the crime?’” he asked.
Williams thinks not. “Parking tickets should not be a jailable offense,” she said. “I know there are people who are going to say ‘that’s what you get’ and I’m okay with that. But there’s got to be some alternative. I would have gladly done community service.”
Ultimately the experience helped Williams connect with local residents who supported her, though had she served her entire jail term it would have devastated her bookstore business. “I’m so grateful for all the support I got from the community,” she said in a June 30, 2013 news report. “I had a lot of people come in and buy books just to help me get back on my feet.”
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