Two Pennsylvania lawmakers want to reduce the penalties for overdue truancy fines after a 55-year-old woman who had failed to pay $2,000 was found dead in Berks County jail cell.
Authorities have not yet determined what caused Eileen DiNino’s June 7 death.
Under a proposal by state Sens. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, and Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, unpaid truancy fines would no longer be punishable by up to five days in jail. Instead, if a child is truant, the school district would be required to write up an individualized plan to get that student back in school.
“We have to be smart on crime,” said Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We have to develop a plan in which we’ll identify what’s going on here with the family and with the child. It could be very simple — the fact that they have some difficulty in transportation — or there’s some other student that’s causing them to miss school.”
In the last 15 years, Schwank said, more than 1,600 people in Berks County had been locked up over unpaid truancy fines. Most of the inmates were women.
“Taking a mother out of a family and jailing her is absolutely the last thing that you want to do in a family where truancy is a problem,” said Schwank.
Ed Marsico, chairman of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association’s communications committee, said the organization has yet not taken a position on the changes.
“The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association’s is reviewing the proposal,” he said. “There are concerns that if jail is not an option, what can you utilize to get parents to get their kids to school?”
At the same time, Marsico said he would prefer not to see people imprisoned for failing to pay fines as low as $100.
Truancy appears to be a serious problem in Pennsylvania. Not counting Philadelphia, more than 70,000 truancy cases throughout the state were resolved in one way or another last year, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. (The AOPC said it does not maintain this data for Philadelphia.)
In about half of those cases, the defendant pleaded guilty to or was found guilty of truancy offenses. It is unclear how many cases involved unpaid fines or resulted in jail time.