Eileen DiNino of Reading, Pennsylvania—a mother of seven children—was found dead in her cell
on Saturday after being sent to jail for owing $2,000 in “fines and court costs” accrued from her children’s truancy.
The exact cause of her death, which, according to the Associated Press, occurred “hours after she surrendered to serve a 48-hour sentence,” is unclear. The judge who “reluctantly” sent her to Berks County Jail in Bern Township wondered if she was “scared to death.” Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) is asking if DiNino needed medical care—and why she was sent to what amounts to debtor’s prison in the first place.
“I cannot understand how someone ends up going to jail,” said Sen. Schwank. “They did not murder someone, they did not steal, they did not commit a felony. How does jail time equate to resolving this particular problem?”
In Pennsylvania, parents of truant children can be required to attend parenting classes and fined. Truant teenagers can have their driver’s license revoked. A 1996 amendment to the Pennsylvania Crimes Code imposed a maximum $300 fine and 90 days in jail for an adult who “aids, abets, entices or encourages” a student’s truancy.
According to a local report, DiNino had 55 truancy violations, and each violation can lead to five days in jail. On top of the initial fines, DiNino’s court costs added up to an insurmountable sum.
From the AP:
[H]er bill included a laundry list of routine fees: $8 for a “judicial computer project”; $60 for Berks constables; $40 for “summary costs” for several court offices; and $10 for postage.
Attorney Richard Guida, who once represented DiNino, described her circumstances as “a slice of inner-city life.”
“The people home taking care of the children are mothers,” he told the AP. “Many times, they’re overwhelmed, and some of these kids are no angels.”
In the wake of DiNino’s death, the Reading Eagle reported that more than “1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone—two-thirds of them women—over truancy fines since 2000.”
A study on chronic absenteeism conducted by the National Center for Children in Poverty found that the lower the family income, the higher the absentee rate, in all grades.