Judges Binder and Sondergaard, Democratic candidates for Chester County Court of Common Pleas, don’t believe in debtors’ prison.
Increasingly across the country, counties are trying to balance their budgets on the backs of indigent people. If someone accused of a crime can’t afford a lawyer, they have the right to a public defender. However, that doesn’t prevent court fees from being added on. In Chester County, on average, someone with a public defender is billed $1,163 in court costs—a savings of a full $10 compared to defendants who could afford their own counsel. But of course most of them can’t pay and many are imprisoned for non-payment.
All this is brought out in “Why are Pennsylvania judges sentencing people on probation for debts they won’t ever be able to pay?” by Samantha Melamed, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 10, 2019.
The two Democrats running for Court of Common Pleas oppose sending those who can’t pay fines to prison and would rather allow them to perform community service at a living wage of $15 an hour. Judges Binder and Sondergaard have already moved toward this as Magisterial District Judges.
This practice benefits the community and the organizations where the service is performed in addition to saving taxpayers money on costly prisons. Some find their community service so valuable they continue to volunteer beyond what the court has mandated.
Charles Dickens experienced as a child, and describes in his work, the Victorian practice of sentencing people to debtors’ prison until they pay their debts, even though they can’t earn money while in prison. Chester County should move beyond that era today… and at the same time do a favor to its taxpayers.