The workshop, held in East Liberty, was part of Allegheny County’s new Fine and Fee Justice initiative.
Diona Brown was at Pittsburgh Municipal Court last month for another case when she learned she had two outstanding court fines for when she was at school, two decades ago. Both were for truancy, dating back to 1999 and 2000. She was 16 years old.
It was so long ago that Brown couldn’t even remember why she’d missed school. “Who knew once you grow up you have to take care of that stuff?” she said.
The outstanding amount totaled $404.50. For Brown, who’s been staying at home caring for her three children while they attend school virtually, the amount is insurmountable. “I don’t know how I’m going to pay $400. I can barely do anything now,” she said.
So on Nov. 20, Brown attended Allegheny County’s first Fine and Fee Justice Workshop, presided over by Magisterial District Judge Mik Pappas. Her payment determination hearing was one of 29 that took place at the East Liberty courtroom that day.
The workshop’s approach was comprehensive: local organizations were there to offer community service opportunities and free financial counseling. A pro-bono lawyer helped her make sense of her paperwork and gave legal advice. Pappas worked with her to go over her individual circumstances and come up with options for satisfying the debt, be it a payment plan or community service.
“What do you think would work for you?” Pappas asked Brown. The judge and Brown settled on 16 hours of community service over the course of several months, at a rate of $26 per hour. The rate is recommended by Independent Sector, a national nonprofit organization that estimates the value of volunteer time in each state.
Brown left the hearing feeling relieved. “It helped me out good, because I thought my only option would be a payment plan,” she said.
Diona Brown has over $400 in court debt for two truancy cases from 1999 and 2000, when she was 16 years old. (Photo by Juliette Rihl/ PublicSource)
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