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‘Jailed for Poverty,’ Indigent PA Offenders Trapped in ‘Debtors’ Prison’

A decade after he was sentenced for a robbery in Philadelphia, Maurice Hudson could not come up with $1,941 in outstanding court costs, so Judge Genece Brinkley gave him an additional 1 1/2-to-three-year term on top of the original 2-4 year sentence.

Courts have ruled people cannot be incarcerated for nonpayment without a determination that they are actually able to pay. Cheryl Brooks, a Philadelphia public defender, said Hudson “was essentially jailed for his poverty,” reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Hudson’s case illustrates a reality for hundreds of people on probation or parole in Pennsylvania: Failure to make court-ordered payments remains a common reason for judges to revoke supervision and impose more probation, more parole, or even more incarceration, keeping people under court control for years on end.

“It’s an ongoing, systemic problem,” said Andrew Christy of the American Civil Liberties Union. In an amicus brief in Hudson’s case, he said the practice “turned Pennsylvania’s jails into a form of modern debtors’ prisons.”

Though poor defendants are entitled to legal representation, that does not mean access to the justice system is free. Court fees even for indigent defendants average more than $1,000 per case in Pennsylvania. For those who spend years on probation or parole, as Hudson did, costs can pile much higher.

In addition to assorted fees — $250 for a DNA detection fund, $50 toward the cost of prosecution, $8 for a judicial computer project, $5 for a firearm training fund — he was assessed almost $800 in supervision fees. The ACLU found that among defendants poor enough to be assigned public defenders, court costs were fully paid in just 24 percent of cases over 10 years.

Public defenders have been campaigning for judges to waive court costs for indigent defendants, arguing they are obligated to take defendants’ means into account. That question is now before the state Superior Court.

Additional Read: Illinois Overhaul of Court Fines Leaves Minorities Struggling to Pay.

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