PHILADELPHIA, PA–Minor infractions can have devastating consequences for those struggling to make ends meet. Often, those in poverty are faced with jail time for failing to pay arbitrary fines with money they don’t have. Eileen DiNino, 55, lost her life last week because of our broken criminal justice system.
The impoverished mother of seven was serving a two-day sentence for her children’s absence from school. It seemed like a small price to pay, given the jail time would erase about $2,000 in fines and court costs. DeNino showed up to court to surrender, eager to be free of the burden.
DeNino had accumulated the debt over fifteen years due to several of her children not going to school. DiNino, who was unemployed, had little help caring for her four remaining children at home, and would often skip hearings or fail to bring the correct documents to court.
The mother was sent to the Berks County jail by Judge Dean R. Patton, who called her a “lost soul”, and now regrets his decision.
“This lady didn’t need to be there,” Patton said. “We don’t do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago.”
DeNino’s fines for just one case included $8 for a “judicial computer project”, $60 for Berks County constables and $10 for postage. Subsequent fines created a snowball effect, and DeNino was not alone in her struggle.
According to the Reading Eagle, over 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone — two-thirds of them women — over truancy fines since 2000.
Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbach (R) is outraged by these numbers, and wants to see an end to the existing law.
“I think there are better ways to deal with nonviolent crimes. I am not even sure quite frankly that things like truancy and parking should be criminal offenses and frankly support legislation that would decriminalize those offenses,” said Leinbach.
Police state that DeNino’s cause of death has not yet been determined, but PA Senator Judy Schwank (D) is not ruling out foul play.
“How did it happen that she passed away? Did she need medical attention and not receive it?”