by Dale Chappell
A woman in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty to stealing $25 in merchandise in 2016. It cost her almost $600 to plead guilty. A man in Fairview Township, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty to possession of a small amount of marijuana in 2017. It cost him $1,000 in fines and fees, including $160 just to plead guilty.
Welcome to Pennsylvania’s law allowing county court clerks to set a fee to plead guilty, which is then used to fund the clerks’ budgets. The law, dating to 1980, lets clerks increase the fee every three years, and can be as high as $200 per charge in some counties.
This fee, however, unfairly targets indigent defendants who can’t even afford to pay for an attorney and must be appointed one by the court. In 2015, $570,000 of the $900,000 in fees collected in York County alone were paid by defendants declared indigent by the court. That means the poorest defendants paid over 63 percent of the total fees.
“We’re funding public offices by taxing the poorest people, but it doesn’t show up as a tax” John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, said. “It allows our taxes to look more progressive than they are.”
There is a solution, some say. The court clerks could be fully funded with less than a 1 percent property tax hike, which would amount to less than $10 per year on the average tax bill.
Failing to pay the “plea fee,” as it’s called, further burdens the poor, by revoking their driver’s license or even being put in jail for not paying the fee. In 2016, 4,500 people were jailed in Pennsylvania for not paying their court fines or fees.
This extra burden on poor defendants increases their recidivism risk, Pfaff says, which in the long run makes it harder for those trying to stay out of jail to “self-regulate” and stay on the right track.
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