Pennsylvania Years after arrest, poor owe court costs they can't afford

Some question cost-effectiveness of attempted collections, lack of transparency

By Jeff Hawkes

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — Eleven years after a judge sentenced him to 12 months on probation for leaving the scene of a traffic accident, Robert Steele III, 31, was back in court because he owed over $4,800 in court costs.

Steele and 11 other delinquent payers listened from the back of the courtroom as Lancaster County Judge Howard Knisely took the bench and launched into a scolding.

“This is fines and costs court,” Knisely said. “This is not excuse hour. This is not your mother died last month. I don’t want to hear crap. You’re here,” the judge continued with bite in his tone, “because you haven’t paid.”

A couple of times a month, Lancaster County judges preside at fines and costs court, holding contempt hearings that occasionally end with someone going to jail.

Few fault judges for going after those who aren’t paying restitution that makes victims whole. But advocates for the poor and criminal justice reform see court costs as a different matter. Jailing someone for unpaid costs, they say, evokes the debtors prisons of long ago. They also question the cost-effectiveness of collections and the lack of transparency.

Although Steele’s crime was a low-level misdemeanor, there was nothing minor about the cascade of costs he became responsible for — 77 fees in all.

His docket sheet, stretching like a grocery store receipt, is Exhibit A in how the government extracts money from hapless defendants: bench warrant cost, $15; sheriff bench warrant cost, $86.53; adult probation administration fee, $240.67; prosecution cost, $5; clerk cost, $120, and so on.

The total: $6,498.

“This is fines and costs court. This is not excuse hour. This is not your mother died last month. I don’t want to hear crap.”

The Legislature, loathe to raise state taxes, has over the years given each county’s president judge the authority to offset certain state and local costs by assessing defendants with what are essentially user fees.

Most costs get imposed without public input or attention to the cumulative pain imposed on people who are indigent or living paycheck to paycheck.


License suspended

In Steele’s case, the state revoked his driver’s license. A penalty for his misdemeanor, it disrupted his ability to earn a living, he said.

A father of two with a third on the way, Steele said he trained to do auto body repair, but because he didn’t have a license, employers turned him down. He said he has construction experience, but unless he gets a ride, he can’t get to job sites. Many other jobs also require a driver’s license.

During one eight-month stretch five years ago when Steele had a ride to a cabinet manufacturer in Atglen, Chester County, he made a $100 payment with each paycheck. But then the ride ended, and he was out of a job. Steele, of Wernersville, Berks County, paid on his costs much less frequently, and he got summoned to court several times.

As he waited in Knisely’s courtroom recently, Steele saw the judge lose patience with a woman who, since 2015, had paid only $400 toward an obligation of over $40,000, mostly restitution.

“Thirty days in jail,” Knisely ordered. A sheriff deputy handcuffed the woman and took her away.

A short time later, Steele stood before the judge.

“You can do roofing work,” Knisely told Steele when it was his turn to explain, without legal representation, why finding work was difficult and why he wasn’t keeping up with a $40-a-month payment plan.

“Yes,” Steele responded, not mentioning his transportation predicament.

“Get out there and apply for it,” Knisely advised.

Afterward, Steele compared the experience to looking down the barrel of a gun.

“He has that power to smack that gavel and take your freedom,” he said.

ACLU study

If Steele had been arrested some­where other than Lancaster County, he would likely be paying hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars less. The county appears to be on the high side in Pennsylvania for the costs it assesses.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing in 2006 found that, in the six counties studied, Lancaster County had the highest average amount of costs, fines and restitution imposed, coming in at $1,864.

More recent data collected by the ACLU of Pennsylvania show that court costs, specifically, tend to be higher here than in most counties.

Over the past 10 years, Lancaster County judges ordered the typical defendant represented by a public defender to pay $1,320 in costs, compared to $1,072 state­wide, the 2018 study shows.

The amount Lancaster County imposes for a DUI expungement program offers another example, LNP found. The $2,667 cost here compares to $2,185 in Berks County, $2,085 in York, $1,834 in Dauphin and $1,392 in Chester.

With costs that high, the ACLU of Pennsylvania says it’s not surprising that people fall behind. It points to a Federal Reserve Board finding that four out of 10 adults don’t have $400 on hand for an emergency.

Meanwhile, according to the employment website CareerBuilder, about 78 percent of American workers in 2017 said they were living paycheck to paycheck.

“An important policy question that I don’t think the Legislature ever grappled with is how much of our government should be funded by user fees,” Andrew Christy, an ACLU attorney, said. “There’s no research in Pennsylvania, to the best of my knowledge, on what the effects are on low-income communities from having to deal with these high financial obligations.”

Dan Jurman, who heads the anti-poverty Community Action Partnership and chaired a mayoral task force on poverty in Lancaster in 2016, thinks it’s time to reevaluate court costs.

“Even if the judge decides not to put someone in jail ...,” Jurman said, “these fines and fees can start a downward spiral” leading to debt-bound defendants turning to public assistance, a consequence that government leaders may not have considered.

Have A Heart, a Lancaster group that advocates for prison reform, joins those concerned about the impact of high costs.

“We believe that court costs can be so exorbitant as to keep people in the judicial system longer than needed and hold them back from successful reintegration,” Jean Bickmire, the group’s president, said. “Although there are certainly consequences for crime, monetary matters can make or break returning citizens.”


No expungement

One example of an unintended consequence of unpaid courts costs is the inability to get even a minor crime expunged until costs are paid.

Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf and lawmakers celebrated passage of a first-in-the-nation Clean Slate Law that created the automated sealing of criminal records 10 years after a conviction for those who stay crime free.

The law had nearly unanimous support because it reduces barriers to success for rehabilitated offenders.

But the law doesn’t apply to anyone owing court-imposed financial obligations, said Sharon Dietrich, managing attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and expert on Clean Slate.

“What these figures suggest is that defendants of all types are far more likely to pay off their court costs if the amounts are tailored to their financial ability to pay.”

The ACLU’s study last year shows that, in fact, a lot of people won’t get their records expunged because of outstanding costs. The typical statewide indigent defender, the ACLU found, has paid only about half of his or her costs 10 years after the offense.

The study’s 10-year look back found that the median public defender client paid only $441 and owed $631.

“That is not to say that defendants are not making an effort to pay their court costs,” the ACLU says in its conclusion. “Our analysis shows that across our 10-year data set, 24 percent of (public defender) cases are paid in full ... What these figures suggest is that defendants of all types are far more likely to pay off their court costs if the amounts are tailored to their financial ability to pay.”

The ACLU recommends that judges at sentencing tailor costs to a defendant’s financial circumstances, noting that realistic expectations for payment are not likely to hurt a court’s bottom line.

Public defender “clients could have their costs reduced by 50 percent,” the ALCU says, “and courts will still bring in as much money as they have been for the past decade.”


President judge responds

Lancaster County President Judge Dennis Reinaker is not a fan of presiding over fines and costs court.

“I feel like a bill collector out there,” he said.

Nevertheless, Reinaker defends court costs, saying it’s fair to expect an offender to defray some of the expense the case imposes on the taxpayer-funded court system.

And he thinks the fact that some low-income defendants do pay all of their costs undercuts the ACLU’s assertion that an across-the-board reduction in fees would result in the same amount being collected.

Reinaker acknowledged that it’s easy for the government to target the wallets of offenders because “the rest of society is not going to object.” And he agreed the fees, each imposed without considering the big picture, may be burdensome to some.

But he’s not in favor of the ACLU’s recommendation that judges at sentencing consider lowering or waiving costs.

He’s satisfied with the current system that has adult probation’s collections enforcement unit evaluating ability to pay and setting up payment plans.

Those who fall behind end up at fines and costs court, Reinaker said, “and that’s where we’re required to make a determination about the person’s ability to pay.”

(The 10-worker collections unit has a budget of $637,000. It collected an average $6.3 million in costs each of the past three years.)

Reinaker also said he’s not alarmed that Lancaster County’s costs might be on the high side, either. He said any reduction would have budgetary implications that could result in program reductions or higher taxes.

“That’s not to say that there isn’t merit to considering the point made by the ACLU — that we make it far too difficult for some defendants to cover these costs,” he said in an email follow-up to an interview. “But many of these defendants are very young and have never developed the motivation to take responsibility for their behavior, some of which is a financial one.”

A benefit of having probation officers supervise them is some may get a job, he said.

Struggling mom

In its latest newsletter, Beth Shalom House of Peace, a Christian transitional housing program for mothers released from jail, features Stephany Gil-Perez and her 5-year-old daughter.

The article mentions Gil-Perez’s health issues, her escape from an abusive relationship, and her sense of isolation after her parents left Lancaster and returned to their native Dominican Republic.

It says that since Gil-Perez moved into Beth Shalom last October, she has focused on improving her life. She participates in Bible and life skills classes, studies for a high-school equivalency diploma and has applied for entry-level jobs.

But looming over Gil-Perez’s efforts to turn around her life — and unmentioned in the newsletter — are court costs stemming from multiple crimes, starting with retail theft when she was 19. That case alone hit her with over $6,300 in court costs. All told, she owes $10,700.

At fines and costs court three years ago, Gil-Perez said, a judge ordered her to pay $120 a month.

“He kind of understood a little bit about me being a single parent and stuff,” she recalled. “But to him it was just this is what you owe this county. You’re on probation. You’ve got to pay this. If not, you’re going to jail.”

But she said there’s never been a time when she would have been able to come up with $120 every month.

Her total payments of $240 have so far gone toward restitution.

“It’s kind of scary,” she said. “I owe them a lot of money, and if I don’t pay them, they can violate me and I could go to jail, and I could lose everything that I’ve been working so hard for.”

Gil-Perez said that raising her daughter keeps her from despairing over her debt.

“I’m not saying I shouldn’t pay it,” she said. “I know I did some things that I got charged, and they gave me fines that I’m responsible to pay, and I understand that, and I’m willing and I want to go to work and pay all that.”

“But $10,000 is not ... I don’t even know where that came out of. I don’t know how I let that happened,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I don’t know.”