PHILADELPHIA – A growing number of Americans are expressing outrage that a Pennsylvania mother of seven died in jail last weekend while serving a 48-hour sentence over unpaid, school truancy-related fines.
Eileen DiNino, 55, was found dead last Saturday in her jail cell. Authorities don’t know the cause of death yet, they have ruled out suspicious behavior.
DiNino was being penalized because several of her children routinely missed school. According to the Associated Press, “She had racked up $2,000 in fines, fees and court costs since 1999 as the Reading School District tried to keep her children in class, most recently at a vocational high school.”
All told, DiNino “faced fines from nine active truancy cases, which spawned 55 citations,” the AP adds.
The fines related to school truancy are quite small – perhaps $20 – but it’s the court-related costs that are most expensive, sometimes reaching $150. Such costs add up quickly and make it nigh impossible for low-income parents to pay.
“In recent years, the government has found all sorts of interesting ways to extract money from people,” said Richard Guida, a lawyer who is experienced in handling truancy cases.
DiNino had no ability to pay her $2,000 fine. She was reportedly unemployed, on welfare, and completely overwhelmed by her children.
District Judge Dean Patton, who sentenced DiNino to jail, is deeply troubled by her death.
“This woman should not have died alone in prison,” Patton told the Reading Eagle. “Our ultimate goal is not to fine people or put them in jail, but that is the only tool the Legislature has given us when people can’t afford to pay.”
The Huffington Post reports that Patton also “acknowledged that a short jail stint can sometimes ‘break the habit’ of parents who’d rather party into the night than take their children to school the next day.”
In the county where DiNino lived, roughly 110 parents of truant students are jailed every year.
Americans of all political stripes are denouncing the practice and likening it to the debtor’s prisons from the nation’s Colonial days.
“The circumstances of DiNino’s death are a stark and tragic reminder of how being poor is considered a crime worthy of punishment in the United States,” Salon.com writes.
Pennsylvania lawmakers should examine those concerns and consider adjusting their policies, especially those related to socking citizens with court fees. The idea of making criminals shoulder the costs of the court system makes sense in theory, but it’s excessively punitive in practice.
As tragic as DiNino’s death is, her life was even more so. Guida, the attorney with experience handling truancy cases, described DiNino’s case as a glimpse into the “inner-city life” that many women are living.
Without judging DiNino – few details of her personal life have been reported – it’s safe to say the similar, chaotic situations many women and children find themselves in stem from the breakdown of the family unit. The sexual revolution that began in the 1960s has borne its fruit: single-parent homes, absentee fathers, overwhelmed mothers, poverty, and children who roam the streets instead of study in class.
So yes, let DiNino’s tragic death in a jail cell spur discussions of how society can be more compassionate to the poor.
But maybe the bigger lesson is to be found in her sad and troubled life.