Pa. Justices Say State Must Notify Inmates Of Deduction Hike

By Caleb Drickey | December 20, 2023, 7:34 PM EST ·

The State of Pennsylvania violated an inmate's constitutional right to due process by garnishing a larger portion of the wages and gifts he received without providing him notice or the opportunity to protest the change, the state's highest court ruled.

In a 4-2 opinion in favor of Thomas Washington, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's justices ruled that the state's Department of Corrections was obligated to inform prisoners that pay deductions would increase from 20% to 25% and allow them to speak out against such decisions, even if the new garnishment rates were mandatory under the law.

"Procedural due process must be afforded to both heroes and villains with equal vigor when state action infringes on a fundamental right," Justice Christine Donohue said for the majority. "To deny the right to procedural due process based on the assumption that relief is unavailable is to deny the right to process itself."

Washington, who pled no contest to assault and a weapons charge in 2015, was sentenced to up to 10 years imprisonment and ordered to pay more than $15,000 in restitution. In January 2020, the DOC without warning increased the rate at which it garnished wages and cash gifts paid to Washington from one-fifth to one-quarter, in accordance with a new benchmark set by a 2019 revision to a law known as Act 84.

The Supreme Court rejected a lower court's ruling that the change in law excused the DOC from notifying inmates it would claim a larger chunk of their wages and cash gifts because all citizens, even inmates, are presumed to know Pennsylvania's law. The authorization of a higher garnishment rate via a change in law and the implementation of that rate by the DOC were distinct acts, the higher court held, and Washington had a right to be notified of the latter act.

That Washington faced little or no prospect of relief from a garnishment increase, the court ruled, did not mean he lacked the right to speak out against the change. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1978 decision in Carey v. Piphus , the justices of the state high court said inmates are owed due process even if they have no prospect of relief.

However, the court also noted that Washington's case against increased garnishment was not necessarily doomed. The DOC retains discretion not to apply the increased deduction rate to inmates with low account balances, the justices noted, which indicates that the agency potentially could have chosen not to apply the increase to Washington.

"The Commonwealth Court's rationale that the DOC lacked any discretion in setting the deduction is not supported by the facts," the justices said. "The Commonwealth Court erred in determining that no remedies were available."

The court therefore reversed the lower court's decision to sustain the DOC's objections to Washington's bid to reduce his deduction rate.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Kevin M. Dougherty agreed with the majority that Washington's rights had been violated but said the inmate need not be given a formal hearing to discuss the change in policy. Citing the court's 2005 decision in Buck v. Beard and its 2018 ruling in Bundy v. Wetzel , Dougherty said Washington should be entitled only to an informal written notice of his right to file a grievance.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice P. Kevin Brobson said the implementation of the higher deduction rate was a legislative action and the DOC was not obligated to provide notice to Washington.

Ted Hages, counsel for Washington, said in a statement Wednesday that the decision represented a win for inmates who must live on wages far below the minimum wage paid to free individuals.

"The court has set an important precedent for thousands of incarcerated Pennsylvanians and their families, who ... already bear the 'Sisyphean task' of paying for basic life necessities at prison wage rates as low as $0.19 per hour," Hages said. "Now, there is a path for individuals to lessen some of these hardships and object to the heightened rate of deduction, just as the Constitution guarantees."

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania DOC declined to comment Wednesday. 

Washington is represented by Ted Hages of Reed Smith LLP.

Pennsylvania's DOC is represented in-house by Chase Defelice, Kimberly Adams and Timothy Holmes.

The case is Washington v. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, case number 13 MAP 2022, in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Roy LeBlanc.

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