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EDITORIAL: A system that punishes poverty

The Dispatch Editorial Board
Harry M. Ness is sworn in as Court of Common Pleas judge during a ceremony at the York County Administrative Center Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Oaths of office were administered to county and court officials. Bill Kalina photo

Jenna Sneeringer couldn't catch a break in York County's Court of Common Pleas.

But poor people rarely do in the American justice system.

On Aug. 13, Sneeringer couldn't pay $800 in fines and court fees related to a 2017 drunken driving charge. So York County Judge Harry M. Ness declared the 29-year-old mother of three in contempt and ordered her locked up.

That was a mistake, violating state procedure that mandates judges to consider the financial situations of the accused. 

Ness appears to have realized that, and a day later he vacated his own order. But by that time, the case had already been appealed. This week, the state Superior Court vacated the order.

Debtors' prisons have been illegal in the U.S. since 1833. They were for centuries a weapon used by Europe's landed gentry to punish the poor.

But the existing judicial system has found ways around the ban on locking up those guilty of poverty.

For decades, the cash bail system has kept millions locked up for otherwise minor offenses simply because they couldn't pay. Trapped behind bars, they're unable to earn a living. They often lose their jobs. They can't care for their children.

And, as if by design, they fall deeper further behind.

Just this past week, Montgomery County's top two public defenders were sacked for merely advocating against Pennsylvania's system that disproportionately robs the indigent of justice, reported The Philadelphia Inquirer.

It seems simply doing one's job, and advocating for those whose constitutional rights to due process are under the greatest threat, is a fireable offense in a system constructed on hammering the poor. 

That context is necessary to understand insidiousness of Ness' order that sent Sneeringer to jail because she couldn't pay her fines and fees. Regardless of the judge's frustration with the Hanover woman — she had skipped out on an earlier court appearance — his was the type of poor shaming that's ruined lives for centuries.

But the failings of such policies aren't merely bleeding-heart politics. It's downright wasteful, too. 

There's a cost to the vicious cycle that locks up people for the crime of being poor. By and large, local taxpayers foot the bill for county jails. And each inmate requires food, health care and oversight.

It has fueled recidivism throughout the country, including right here in York County, for too long.

That's why several states are overhauling their criminal justice systems and doing away with onerous court fees, such as those Sneeringer faced. States such as New Jersey, New York, Alaska and California have either banned cash bail outright or are considering it. Local governments, too, such as Houston, are banning cash bail. 

Those changes also come with sweeping reforms to sentencing guidelines, which pair with the bail bond industry to keep poor people locked up. 

And yet, Pennsylvania's answer has so far been legislation signed this past year that focused more on rehabilitation than addressing a system that actively punishes the indigent. 

Pennsylvania's elected class is instead leaning on the state Supreme Court to do the hard work. To its credit, the state's high court has opened an investigation into the issue. 

Decision's such as Ness' are symptomatic of a society-wide issue where justice is available to only those who can afford it. His ruling, perhaps made in a moment of frustration, exposed the failings of Pennsylvania's criminal justice system, where judges can level draconian punishment and those who pay the price must hope the local public defenders are in their corner.

Luckily for Sneeringer, York County's defense attorneys did their jobs and did so quickly. That's not always the case.