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Proposals Aim to End Debtor’s Prison in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania courts are frequently imprisoning people who are unable to pay fines. Proposed rule changes aim to end debtor’s prisons, but the real problem may be a lack of oversight for the local courts that oversee such cases.

Ann Lisa Wodarski has been sent to jail six times by Judge Frances Lawrence for her failure to pay fines and court costs. Court records show Lawrence sent people to jail 228 times from 2011 through the middle of December 2013 for “failure to pay collateral.”

For people facing charges such as traffic tickets, having an open container, or failing to have their dog on a leash, Lawrence requires defendants to pay collateral, which is like bond, to assure they attend court hearings to contest the charge or the fine they must pay.

“What is perfectly clear under both the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure (Pa R. Crim. P.) is that you cannot send someone to jail if they cannot afford to pay the fine,” said Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, because that’s the equivalent of having a debtor’s prison- of putting someone in jail simply because they’re poor.”

Yet, records in Montgomery County show the practice has been going on since at least 1999. Each day person spends in jail costs taxpayers. Ironically, for those jailed, each day in jail is worth $40 towards the payment of their fine or court cost. For taxpayers, it is lose-lose. It has cost them over $3000 for the two months Wodarski served in jail. That does not count the $2,400 in fees and costs credited to Wodarski for that service.

Montgomery County jail records show that most of the people jailed for failure to pay costs or fines are homeless. Many of them may be recognized by the judge as “regulars” who appear for drug or alcohol related offenses. It creates an unfair situation.

“It really is a situation where the judge has all the power,” said Walczak. “The judge in essence is playing defense lawyer, is playing prosecutor, and is being the judge, and if he or she decides that they’re going to violate the rules, there really isn’t anybody present at the time to prevent them from doing so.”

District Judges like Lawrence have a lot of power, especially for someone who is not required to even have a law degree, or be a lawyer. Such judges are elected to a six-year term. Even more alarming is that those courts do not keep transcripts of the proceedings.

Concerned with the increase in stories about people being jailed over traffic and summary citations throughout the state, a Rules committee has proposed changes to the Pa R. Crim P. Those proposals require judges to hold hearings on a person’s ability to pay with 72 years and to write down the reasons for the decision to incarcerate. The proposals do no address whether defendants are entitled to an attorney.


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