Last updated: June 11. 2014 2:36PM - 942 Views
Associated Press



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(AP) Hundreds of parents, some impoverished and overwhelmed, have been jailed in Pennsylvania for failing to pay court fines that arise from truancy hearings after their children skip school, creating what some call a "debtor's prison" for people like Eileen DiNino.


DiNino, 55, of Reading, was found dead in a jail cell Saturday morning, hours after she surrendered to serve a 48-hour sentence.


She had racked up $2,000 in fines, fees and court costs since 1999 as the Reading School District tried to keep her children in class, most recently at a vocational high school.


"This woman should not have died alone in prison," District Judge Dean R. Patton told The Reading Eagle. "Our ultimate goal is not to fine people or put them in jail, but that is the only tool the Legislature has given us when people can't afford to pay."


More than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone where Reading is the county seat over truancy fines since 2000, more than two-thirds of them women, the newspaper reported. Charges are sometimes lodged against the students rather than their parents.


"What you see is kind of a slice of inner-city life," said lawyer Richard Guida, who handled truancy cases as a school district solicitor for more than a decade, until early this year. "The people home taking care of the children are mothers. Many times, they're overwhelmed, and some of these kids are no angels. They're teenagers, and they're sullen. But then mom ends up in court."


Language barriers can also be an issue for letters and phone calls between the parents and school, given that the vast majority of the city and school population is Hispanic, Guida said.


He said he never knew that parents were going to jail over the fines, because he was only involved at an earlier stage of the process. However, he said the fines handed down by judges were typically small, perhaps $20. The debt adds up, he said, over court costs and fees. In one case alone involving DiNino, her bill included a laundry list of routine fees: $8 for a "judicial computer project"; $60 for Berks constables; $40 for "summary costs" for several court offices; and $10 for postage.


"In recent years, the government has found all sorts of interesting ways to extract money from people. The fines can be $20 and the courts costs can be $150," Guida said.


DiNino faced fines from nine active truancy cases, which spawned 55 citations. Guida once handled one of her cases but did not remember how many children she had or other details.


Her court-appointed lawyer did not immediately return a call Wednesday seeking comment. Her death is not suspicious, but the cause has not yet been determined, police said.


Prison Warden Janine Quigley referred the newspaper's call to Berks County Commissioner Kevin R. Barnhardt, chairman of the county prison board.


"This woman died in prison, away from her family, and for what?" Barnhardt said. "What did she learn from this? What did we learn from this?"


Associated Press
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