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April 5, 2013

New ACLU of Ohio report documents "contemporary debtors’ prisons"

DebtorsPrisonAs reported in this local article, headlined "Poor unfairly jailed for failing to pay fines, report says," a new report by the ACLU of Ohio makes a set of provocative assertions about crime, punishment and modern economic realities. Here are the basics:

Courts in at least seven counties routinely jail Ohioans for owing court fines and fees, in violation of the state constitution and laws and against a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, according to a new study released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor says the report raises issues that “can and must receive further attention.”

While many defendants can pay their fines and walk away, for Ohio’s poor a fine “is just the beginning of a process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time,” the report says.

The ACLU documented debtors prison practices in Springboro mayor’s court and municipal courts in Hamilton County, Sandusky, Norwalk, Parma, Mansfield and Bryan....

Other courts, including Moraine mayor’s court, employ policies such as arresting defendants for not showing up for hearings where they’re supposed to explain why they haven’t paid their fines, said Mike Brickner, ACLU of Ohio communications director. The hearings are sometimes scheduled weekly, increasing the chances that the defendant will eventually miss one and face a bench warrant, he said....

The ACLU calls on the Ohio Supreme Court to issue administrative rules to require courts to hold hearings to determine whether a defendant is unable to pay fines owed or if they’re just unwilling.  Even if a defendant is just refusing to pay, he or she is supposed to be credited $50 per day spent in jail against the debt.

Jailing people costs between $58 and $65 per night, plus the time spent by officers and clerks to track the person down, arrest them, book them into the jail and file paperwork. Often the costs exceed the debts owed.  “It is not a good deal for the taxpayers.  (The defendants) aren’t not paying because they don’t feel like it.  They’re not paying because the literally have no money,” Brickner said.   Brickner said it creates a two-tier justice system for those who are able to pay fines and those who can’t.

The ACLU of Ohio's report is titled "The Outskirts of Hope" and is available at this link.  Here are a few paragraphs from the report's introduction:

The resurgence of contemporary debtors’ prisons sits squarely at this intersection of poverty and criminal justice. While this term conjures up images of Victorian England, the research and personal stories in this report illustrate that debtors’ prisons remain all too common in 21st century Ohio. In towns across the state, thousands of people face the looming specter of incarceration every day, simply because they are poor.

Taking care of a fine is straightforward for some Ohioans — having been convicted of a criminal or traffic offense and sentenced to pay a fine, an affluent defendant may simply pay it and go on with his or her life.  For Ohio’s poor and working poor, by contrast, an unaffordable fine is just the beginning of a protracted process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time.  The stark reality is that, in 2013, Ohioans are being repeatedly jailed simply for being too poor to pay fines. The U.S. Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, and Ohio Revised Code all prohibit debtors’ prisons. The law requires that, before jailing anyone for unpaid fines, courts must determine whether an individual is too poor to pay.  Jailing a person who is unable to pay violates the law, and yet municipal courts and mayors’ courts across the state continue this draconian practice. Moreover, debtors’ prisons actually waste taxpayer dollars by arresting and incarcerating people who will simply never be able to pay their fines, which are in any event usually smaller than the amount it costs to arrest and jail them.

The Outskirts of Hope documents how contemporary debtors’ prisons work in Ohio and profiles some of the real people who have been impacted by this system.  The constant threat of incarceration has left an imprint on each of these individuals’ lives, interfering with their families, health, employment, and housing.  By shining a light on this dark practice in Ohio, this report hopes to move our state towards the promise of greater justice and fairness for those with the fewest resources.

April 5, 2013 at 09:37 AM | Permalink


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I am glad to see a light shined on this level of the court system, which often flies below the radar. People should pay legitimate fines they are able to pay, even if it hurts. But too often for someone without means (even the working poor), a "minor" criminal fine of a couple hundred dollars is like getting your foot caught in a bear trap. If you don't have the money, you have to go to court and explain. If you don't go, you get more fines/arrest warrants (which can lead to more court costs, public defender fees, etc.). If you do go to court, courts at this level can be so overloaded and disorganized that you may have to wait half a day to appear before the judge. Folks who can't pay their fines often don't have jobs that they can just leave for 4 hours. Etc. This doesn't apply to everyone, but for a sizable proportion of the affected population, it can get Dickensian.

In the end, the system ends up spending thousands of dollars of taxpayer money in terms of facilities, paper, court staff, sheriff's, security, etc. -- all to collect, maybe, a couple of hundred dollars. And then to pay the balance, the system institutes wacko "court costs," so a typical speeding ticket might be $50 with $160 of court costs... and the merry ground starts spinning again for the poor/working poor who receive minor traffic tickets...

Certainly, any reform has to take into consideration the idea that we can't just exempt all poor/indigent people from consequences for breaking (even minor) laws. But there has to be a better way to do it than this. Perhaps at least some moderate level of means-testing for fines. After all, this happens all the time in the private sector. The NFL fines players upwards of $100,000 for illegal hits, etc. Although this amount would bankrupt the average American family, the league understands it is necessary to grab the attention and affect the behavior of a person who makes $3 million/year. Court fines basically act in reverse. While a fine of $300 or $500 for a given offense might be what is fair/necessary to get the attention of someone at the median societal income/wealth level, for the indigent, a significantly smaller dollar amount may well provide as much or more deterrence and/or punishment.

Posted by: anon | Apr 5, 2013 11:48:06 AM

"The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God,
and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.

If "Thou shalt not covet," and "Thou shalt not steal," were not commandments of Heaven,
they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free."
~John Adams, 1787,
Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States

Posted by: Adamakis | Apr 5, 2013 3:13:46 PM

"Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty.
Perhaps, at first, prejudice, habit, shame or fear, principle or religion,
would restrain the poor from attacking the rich, and the idle from usurping on the industrious;
but the time would not be long before courage and enterprise would come, and pretexts be invented by degrees,
to countenance the majority in dividing all the property among them, or at least, in sharing it equally with its present possessors.

Debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich, and not at all on the others;
and at last a downright equal division of every thing be demanded, and voted.

What would be the consequence of this? The idle, the vicious, the intemperate, would rush into the utmost extravagance of debauchery..."
~John Adams, 1787,
Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States

Posted by: Adamakis | Apr 5, 2013 3:49:27 PM

i this is even close to true!

"Courts in at least seven counties routinely jail Ohioans for owing court fines and fees, in violation of the state constitution and laws and against a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, according to a new study released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio."

If in fact the state and federal courts say it's illegal. Anyone caught up and inprisoned under these laws have every legal and moral right to kill anyone holding them in a plainly illegal detention and then if they wish go after the govt fucktard so sent them there!

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 6, 2013 12:25:55 AM

“I’m jist a guy who cain’t say yes to injustice” , albeit not from OK .

The cost to society can be higher than just the jailing cost .

1. Decades ago a man allegedly contacted his wife in an inappropriate manner .

2. She posted the $10 or so and filed an affidavit charging him with a misdemeanor .

3. Tempers cooled and wife decided to not appear , apparently believing that the charge would be dismissed , since other than defendant , she was the ONLY witness ; the police arrested her husband based on a warrant issued .

4. At arraignment , the defendant plead “no contest” , was found guilty upon no testimony from any source .

5. Defendant was fined $50 and immediately jailed because he was unable to immediately pay the $50 + costs.

6. Defendant was fired for failing to report to work , while jailed.

7. A pro bono appeal was taken to Franklin County Court of Appeals (10th District) which upon reconsideration , reversed in a 3-0 opinion and ordered defendant discharged.

8. Meanwhile , back at the food , clothing , shelter (FCS) tent for the family with an unemployed husband/father , the need for FCS continued ; the family went on welfare , food stamps and medicaid.

9. The defendant could have paid the fine and costs from a payday a couple days after the sentence .

A. I suggest that the welfare benefits paid to family including children , until the male head of household became gainfully re-employed , far exceeded the fine and costs that could have and would have been paid ; had the trial judge had the wisdom to determine when they could have been paid and allowed time .

I authored the narrative bill of exceptions , appeal brief and brief on reconsideration (under the supervision of an Ohio attorney registered "active") and therefore plead ½guilty to a tad of bias .

Nemo Me Impune Lacessit

Love , Indifferent and Hate mail (no death threats , please) to:

Posted by: Anon. #2.71828³ | Apr 6, 2013 11:28:35 AM

Docile Jim --

A few questions if I might.

1. What was the "inappropriate contact" with his wife? He belted her in the mouth with a hammer?

2. Why did the husband plead "no contest" when his wife wasn't at the hearing and the state therefore had zero witnesses? All he had to do was plead "not guilty," whereupon the following sequence would have occurred: Judge: Mr. Prosecutor, you may begin. Call your first witness. Prosecutor: We don't have any witnesses. Judge: What? No witnesses!? OK, case dismissed.

And that would have been that. It would have taken all of 30 seconds, max.

3. The husband came to court planning to plead no contest, but didn't bring even fifty bucks plus costs? I just find that very hard to believe. No adult heads out the door in the morning without even fifty bucks, and still less do you do that when you know you're headed to get fined.

4. Responsible people save enough to weather a period of unemployment. If they don't want to be responsible, I'm tired of taking their responsibility for them.

I mean, it's not that hard: Don't slug your wife, don't plead no contest when you can see the prosecutor has no witnesses, don't go to court without cash in your pocket, and build up some trust with your boss so you don't get fired over an episode like this.

It's not always the system's fault. If this guy had just thought and behaved like an adult with half a brain, he would have been fine.

5. Nonetheless, congratulations for your successful litigation!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 7, 2013 9:37:04 AM

▬► Bill Otis , Esq.

All are good questions and I will prepare an answer offline .
Thank you for asking ☺

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 7, 2013 9:37:04 AM

Docile Jim --

A few questions if I might.
* * * *
1. What … ?

2. Why …

3. The …

▼ This case was the system’s fault.▼
4. Responsible …

It's not always the system's fault. If this guy had just thought and behaved like an adult with half a brain, he would have been fine.

▼ Thank you, Sir.* ▼
5. Nonetheless, congratulations for your successful litigation!

* Society needs more Sir and Ma’m usage.

Posted by: Anon. #2.71828³ | Apr 9, 2013 4:42:17 AM

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