A mother of seven died in a Pennsylvania jail over the weekend while serving a two-day sentence. Eileen DeNino, 55, was put in the cell where she died because she could not pay thousands of dollars in fines relating to her children’s truancy from schools in the Reading, PA area.
The cause of DeNino’s death is not yet known, but investigators “found no evidence that the death was suspicious,” according to the Eagle. She was reportedly on medication for high blood pressure and other health issues. “Prison officials said they issued no medication to DeNino before her death,” however.
DeNino had been cited 55 times since 1999, according to the Reading Eagle. On top of the individual fines for truancy, the Pennsylvania courts applied a variety of fees that amplified DeNino’s debt. “DiNino’s court file shows a laundry list of court fees for one case alone: $8 for a ‘judicial computer project’; $60 for Berks County constables; $10 for postage,” the Associated Press writes.
The two judges who preside over truancy cases in the county where the DeNinos live expressed regret and frustration over DeNino’s death. “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,” Reading District Judge Wally Scott told the Eagle. “I cleared all her cases last year.”
District Judge Dean R. Patton sentenced DeNino to 48 hours in jail after she failed to produce documentary evidence of her inability to pay the more than $2,000 in accrued fines and fees. The sentence could have been as long as 45 days of jail time. “I bent over backwards for this woman,” Patton told the Eagle, “but I can’t just dismiss her cases without justification.”
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. But the criminalization of poverty is a much broader national phenomenon, with court costs and fees magnifying the statutory penalties for a variety of minor infractions such that the financial penalty snowballs into an unpayable debt for low-income people.
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.
Criminal justice reform advocates and civil rights groups say these practices amount to a revival of the sort of “debtor’s prisons” that are supposed to be a relic of Colonial-era history. At the federal level, jailing someone for unpaid debt has been illegal since the 1830s. A Supreme Court decision 30 years ago reaffirmed that judges must determine that an offender is able to pay overdue fines before jailing her, but some states appear to be breaking with that requirement.