Woman dies in jail after failing to pay truancy fine

Last week I did a Cato podcast about how nickel-and-dime fines and fees arising from low-level law enforcement can spiral to the point of overwhelming poor persons’ lives. Now take a look at this appalling AP story from Pennsylvania [via Brian Doherty, Reason]. “More than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone — where Reading is the county seat — over truancy fines since 2000.”


  • The problems here are:

    1) This system does little to correct the behavior of the recalcitrant kid since it is unlikely that an already overstressed parent has any control over the kid in the first place. In other words, the wrong person is being punished.

    2) Jailing the parent puts them in an even worse economic position. If the parent had a job, jailing the parent when she is needed at work surely puts her job at jeopardy, and as a minimum removes the needed income for those days. Most people in her position cannot make ends meet if they lose 2 days’ pay. This will probably result in a tailspin to an already vicious cycle. Even if she didn’t have a job, taking care of an apartment or a house is full time work.

    3) The system throws taxpayers’ money down the drain to jail the parent. Money is being used to compound the problem.

    Good going Berks County! Maybe you should place the blame squarely with the truant kid rather than the parent. Jail the kid, put him/her in a cell and make them do their homework and classroom studies until they learn some responsibility and attend school on their own.

  • Walter, I forgot to add that your lede, “Woman dies in jail after failing to pay truancy fine,” is highly misleading since it implies that there was a cause and effect between the jailing and her death.

    The article says: “DiNino, 55, of Reading, was found dead in a jail cell Saturday morning, hours after she surrendered to serve a 48-hour sentence.” She obviously had a severe medical condition that would have soon resulted in her death, jail or no jail. It is arguable that her jailing was the catalyst that resulted in her death.

    In any event, the story is horrible. Fining her for her kid’s truancy is ethically wrong, if not constitutionally unsound. Incarceration should be for criminals. Civilly, it should only be used for civil contempt where the person has the means to pay, but doesn’t pay. I believe that this system is unconstitutional, but obviously she does not have the means to bring this challenge.

  • So since she was going to die before long anyway and she didn’t have the means to pay the fines, let alone enough to challenge them, it’s fine, is it?


  • “Incarceration should be for criminals.” (VMS)


    Rather naive. The supposed sharp distinction between civil & criminal law punishments is illusory. All “law-breakers” are ultimately considered criminals by the judicial system.

    All government law, no matter how trivial, has as its final punishment …your death — should you decide not to cooperate.

    Fail to pay your taxes, civil court fines, jaywalking ticket, etc. –and eventually rough men with clubs, guns and shackles will show up to throw you in a cage. Resist… and they will legally kill you on the spot.

    Usually the mere threat of arrest and imprisonment is enough to make most people docile and obedient; but the ultimate sanction held by the government and its enforcers is always the criminal punishment of death… no matter the original offense.

    Truancy laws, in particular, blatantly violate the U.S. Constitution and every state constitution. But it matters not; the government must be obeyed at any cost.

  • Purely in terms of improving truancy, I suspect:
    Fining people who can’t pay and are not heavily invested in their children’s education < Paying low income people who aren't heavily invested in their children's education.

    Kozinski was right: For all the diversity on the bench, lacking almost entirely are those for whom a $50 fine was ever severe financial hardship.

  • VMS-

    I find nothing misleading about the headline. It’s merely a statement of fact. Lots of people have pointed this out, and I don’t understand what they are getting at- it is pretty horrible to die in jail, away from your loved ones, whether jail had anything to do with it or not.

  • According to the article, the truancy has been going on for 15 years. The child is not the problem.
    After 15 years she finally gets 48 hours of jail time, this is not the court’s fault.
    After 15 years she had racked up $2000 of fines.