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Woman dies in prison: Woman dies in jail for kid's truancy, son speaks out

Eileen DiNino, the impoverished Pennsylvania woman and mother of seven who died in jail last weekend, had seen two judges before she was remanded over for a two-day jail sentence. The 55-year-old DiNino was charged with failing to pay a $2,000 fine – a pyramiding penalty because her children had missed too many days at school – and their truancy landed this struggling mom in jail.

We brought you this story the other day – a single, poor mom who ultimately became a prisoner of her own debt from a spiraling cycle of fines. New information is now surfacing. DiNino’s case is touching a nerve with readers across the nation, and is most certainly highlighting ambiguities in the state level justice system.

Here’s some background on Eileen’s sad story:

Her seven children had missed a total of 55 days in school. The caveat is that her children’s accumulating truancies date way back to 1999. DiNino was well known in Pennsylvania’s legal system. Under the state’s law, parents can go to jail for five days every single time their kids have an unexcused school absence. Her fines had racked up to a few thousand, and the sentencing judge said he was obligated to render some sort of chastisement – DiNino couldn’t pay, but the court couldn’t just absolve her of the arrears either. So off to jail she went – a modern day version of a debtor’s prison.

The Associated Press reported that DiNino’s fines had all sorts of “administrative costs” tacked on: “The truancy fines themselves might be $75 or less. However, the debt can add up over court costs and fees. DiNino's court file shows a laundry list of court fees for one case alone: $8 for a ‘judicial computer project’; $60 for Berks County constables; $10 for postage. And she had been cited dozens of times over the years.”

So she clearly was a legal repeater.

Sentencing District Judge Dean R. Patton reluctantly put the mother of seven in the Berks County jail. He spoke of his own ruling, calling her a “lost soul.”

“Did something happen? Was she scared to death?” Patton contemplated after he had learned of her fate. “This lady didn't need to be there. We don't do debtors prisons anymore. That went out 100 years ago.”

The county coroner has already ruled out foul play or suicide, saying DiNino died of natural causes. Reports from an autopsy and toxicology have yet to be released.

Pennsylvania is like many other states that have laws on the books that say once a person's fines reach a certain level of delinquency – such as failing to pay a trash bill or neglecting to mow a yard – they become criminal. According to the AP report, over 1,600 individuals have been jailed in Berks County alone in the last 15 years for a failure to pay their children’s truancy fines. Two thirds of those put behind bars are women, mothers.

Pennsylvania’s Reading Eagle carried a few words from DiNino’s son, 28-year-old Mike Tobias, one of five boys who as a teenager contributed to some of his mother’s amassing truancy fines. Tobias said Wednesday that his family is devastated at the circumstances surrounding her death.

“My brothers are dealing with her dying unexpectedly and they feel guilty enough that she was in jail for them,” DiNino said. “It was very unexpected.”

The Reading Eagle picks up the story:

Muhlenberg District Judge Dean R. Patton said Wednesday that he tried to work with DiNino. Patton reduced her sentence from 45 days to 48 hours in the county prison because she was unable to pay more than $2,000 in fines. He said DiNino, 55, of Reading surrendered at his office Friday about 2 p.m.

Prison and coroner's records show DiNino was found unresponsive in her cell Saturday about 1:15 p.m. Initial reports that she had been found unresponsive Saturday morning were incorrect.

Records show DiNino was taking medications to treat high blood pressure, anxiety and bipolar disorder when she entered the prison. Prison officials said they issued no medication to DiNino before her death.

The Eagle is reporting DiNino’s decade and a half worth of cases were split between Judge Patton and Reading District Judge Wally Scott. Patton said he tried, very hard, to accommodate DiNino, given her exigent circumstances. In one of the last times that Patton saw DiNino, he had ordered her to return with proof of income and bills so he could work with her.

“She came with nothing,” Patton lamented. “I bent over backwards for this woman, but I can't just dismiss her cases without justification.”

Judge Scott says he remembers back in October when DiNino made a court appearance and told him that she wanted to comply with the fines, but didn’t even have enough money to pay utility bills or feed all of her children.

“She didn't have a job,” Scott said. “She was living in a house owned by a family member. We sat and talked for a long time in my office and I could see that she couldn't pay the fines, that she tried to make her sons go to school but there is only so much a parent can do.”

Scott said he wiped out all of her cases up to that point.

But DiNino’s fines kept mounting. Tobias says he would like to see legislation decriminalize such minor offenses. “I hope so,” he said, speaking of recent actions taken by state legislators to highlight this loophole. “This has been a problem for a long time.”

The Reading Eagle reports that State Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone “sent a letter and copies of his laws to decriminalize parking and truancy fines and a news story about DiNino's death to the chairmen and members of the House Transportation, Education and Judiciary committees. He is pleading with fellow lawmakers to reconsider the bills that he said have been languishing in those committees.”

“If this doesn't inspire them to take action on these bills, I don't know what will,” said Caltagirone.

In DiNino’s case, it appears that Patton interpreted the law – or his options to sentence – differently than Scott.

The Reading Eagle says that according to Pa. state law:

"Upon a determination that the defendant is financially unable to pay as ordered, the issuing authority (judge) may alter or amend the order as otherwise provided by law."

“What you see is kind of a slice of inner-city life,” said lawyer Richard Guida. Guida was the Reading School District solicitor in charge of truancy cases and handled multiple citations for DiNino over the last decade. “The people home taking care of the children are mothers. Many times, they're overwhelmed, and some of these kids are no angels.”

“The woman didn’t have any money,” said Diana L. Sealy, whose son married one of DiNino’s daughters. “Years ago, I tried helping her out. She had all these kids.”

Patton said he has lost sleep over her death. At the same time, he acknowledged that a short jail stint can sometimes “break the habit” of parents who allow absences to build up.

It is yet unknown why this mother of seven was unable to get her children to school. Still, with seven children over 15 years, the absences are in no way excessive. And that's where the heart of the problem is.

Writes the AP:

DiNino did not work or appear to have much help with four children still at home, according to Patton. She frequently skipped hearings, or arrived without requested documents... Although she was often unkempt, she came to court clean and neat to surrender Friday, he said. She had on clean sweatpants, had combed her hair, and had tape holding her glasses together.

“She cared about her kids, but her kids ruled the roost,” Patton said. “She was just accepting what was coming, and (would) let the cards fall where they may. She was a different person. She was cleaned up, smiling. I think she realized, when this is done, the weight was off her shoulders.”

But politicians are outraged at what appears to be a broken system that punishes impoverished parents.

“I have questions as well as what happened to the woman in prison,” Pennsylvania senator Judy Schwank said. “How did it happen that she passed away? Did she need medical attention and not receive it? I cannot understand how someone ends up going to jail. 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?”

Berks County commissioner Christian Leinbach also weighed in, calling the process of DiNino ending up in jail an “insanity.”

“That unfortunately is part of the law in Pennsylvania and I think it is insanity,” Leinbach said. “There has got to be a better way to deal with truancy than putting somebody in prison. I think there are better ways to deal with nonviolent crimes,” adding that he would support legislation that would decriminalize those offenses.

What’s your take on DiNino’s compelling story? Sound off below: