Americans of all political stripes are expressing outrage that a Pennsylvania mother of seven died in jail last weekend while serving a 48-hour sentence over unpaid, school truancy-related fines.
Progressives are calling it another example of how America mistreats its poorest citizens.
Libertarians, meanwhile, are denouncing the government’s heavy-handed approach to lawbreakers that turns minor offenses into major, life-changing problems for citizens.
Eileen DiNino, 55, was found dead last Saturday in her jail cell. Authorities don’t know the cause of death yet, they have ruled out suspicious behavior.
DiNino was being penalized because several of her children routinely missed school. According to the Associated Press, “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.”
All told, DiNino “faced fines from nine active truancy cases, which spawned 55 citations,” the AP adds.
The fines related to school truancy are quite small – perhaps $20 – but it’s the court-related costs that are most expensive, sometimes reaching $150. Such costs add up quickly and make it nigh impossible for low-income parents to pay.
“In recent years, the government has found all sorts of interesting ways to extract money from people,” said Richard Guida, a lawyer who is experienced in handling truancy cases.
DiNino had no ability to pay her $2,000 fine. She was reportedly unemployed, on welfare, and completely overwhelmed by her children.
District Judge Dean Patton, who sentenced DiNino to jail, is deeply troubled by her death.
“This woman should not have died alone in prison,” 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.”
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