Each legislative session thousands of bills and amendments are introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature. Only a fraction become law, and an even smaller portion receive wide media coverage.
These bills impact the lives of people living in Pennsylvania every day.
Each week The Sentinel will highlight one bill that has not received widespread attention.
About the bill
When a person is convicted of a crime or cited for a traffic offense, it is common for fines, fees and restitution to be imposed. This is money the person has to pay either as punishment for the crime or to pay back a victim or the government for costs associated with their crime.
The amount a person has to pay varies based on the type of offense and circumstances surrounding the crime.
It can also vary significantly even when the crimes are nearly identical, depending on how far in the criminal justice process the case gets.
For example, The Sentinel found in Cumberland County, defendants charged with just possession of a small amount of marijuana were ordered to pay as little as $130 or more than $1,000 depending on when in the process they pleaded guilty.
If a person fails to pay those costs, they can, and are, sent to jail.
What happens to the people who try but can’t afford to keep up with their court-imposed debt?
Currently, they can wind up back in jail.
State Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Allegheny County, hopes to change that.
Reschenthaler introduced Senate Bill 1126, which, he hopes, will help reduce the number of indigent people being sent to jail.
“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to jail defendants or extend their prison terms for failure to pay fines and court costs if they are too poor to afford those costs,” Renschenthaler wrote in a co-sponsorship letter. “District judges are only supposed to jail defendants who can afford to pay but willfully choose not to.”
Senate Bill 1126 would require magisterial district judges undergo training to better identify indigent defendants and provide instruction on options in those cases.
“In order to adequately address this problem, we need to better equip our judiciary with the tools and training needed to better distinguish between individuals willfully refusing to pay fines and costs and those who are simply unable to do so,” he wrote.