A 55-year-old mother of 7 has died in what might as well be called a debtor’s prison, after being jailed because she couldn’t pay the more than $2,000 in accrued truancy fees, which were related to her children’s attendance in the Reading, Pennsylvania school area.
Eileen DeNino, 55, died in the Pennsylvania jail following her sentence of two-days. The cause of death at this point is unknown, but the mother of 7 had a number of medical conditions, including high blood pressure, for which prison officials say they issued no medication for prior to her death. The two judges who presided over her case expressed regret and frustration.
Reading District Judge Wally Scott said that “She didn’t have a job. She was living in a house owned by a family member. She was on welfare. We sat and talked for a long time in my office and I could see that she couldn’t pay the fines. I cleared all her cases last year.”
It was district Judge Dean R. Patton that sentenced DeNino to 48 hours in prison following her inability to pay the fines. He told the Reading Eagle that he tried to bend over backwards for her, but couldn’t let the case go: “I bent over backwards for this woman. But I can’t just dismiss her cases without justification.”
DeNino had been cited 55 times since 1999, for fines ranging from truancy to a “laundry list of court fees,” according to the AP. The list includes “$8 for a ‘judicial computer project’; $60 for the Berks County constables; and $10 for postage”
According to Think Progress, thousands of people have been jailed over unpaid fines, in what’s better called the “return of the debtor’s prison:”
Thousands of people have been jailed over truancy fines in the county since 2000, and two in three of those jailed have been women, according to the AP. . .
The results, as catalogued in a year-long National Public Radio investigation, are staggering: a 19-year-old jailed for three days after catching a smallmouth bass during rock bass season, because he couldn’t pay the fine; a homeless man sentenced to a year in jail over $2,600 in penalties incurred by shoplifting a $2 can of beer; a recovering drug user sent to jail three times for being unable to make payments on nearly $10,000 in court costs.
At a federal level, jailing someone for unpaid debt is illegal, and has been since the 1830s. A supreme court decision made 30 years ago reaffirmed that, stating that judges must determine whether or not an offender can pay their fines before sentencing them, although Think Progress notes a number of states appear to be violating that.