A 55-year-old Pennsylvania mother of seven, sentenced to serve two days in jail because her children were absent too much from school and she couldn’t pay some $2,000 in truancy fines, was found dead in her cell.
The Associated Press reported that District Judge Dean R. Patton, who sent her to prison reluctantly, blamed a judicial system that imprisons poor people who can’t pay fines for minor offensives such as truancy fines. He said:
“This lady didn’t need to be there. We don’t do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago.”
It hasn’t gone out in Pennsylvania.
The dead woman was identified as Eileen DiNino, of Reading, who went to jail to wipe clean some $2,000 in fines and court costs imposed on her since 1999 because a number of her children were absent too much from school in Reading and Muhlenberg townships. The fines themselves are not exorbitant — “$8 for a “judicial computer project”; $60 for Berks County constables; $10 for postage” — but they can accumulate into a big number, the AP said. According to WFMZ, she had 55 pending violations.
What cause DiNino’s death had not been determined.
The AP reported that more than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County over school truancy fines since 2000. It quoted lawyer Richard Guida, who handed DiNino’s and many other people’s truancy cases as a solicitor some years ago, as saying:
“What you see is kind of a slice of inner-city life. The people home taking care of the children are mothers. Many times, they’re overwhelmed, and some of these kids are no angels.”
WFMZ reported that Pennsylvania law allows for a five-day jail sentence for every truancy violation, and it quoted Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach, (R) , as saying:
“That unfortunately is part of the law in Pennsylvania and I think it is insanity. There has got to be a better way to deal with truancy than putting somebody in prison.”