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Debtors Prisons Alive And Well In Ohio

(Garth Kant)  It sounds like something from the Victorian England of Dickens, not modern Ohio. People going to jail because they can not pay their debts.

The American Civil Liberties Union has documented how it is happening now, in America.

The ACLU of Ohio discovered some form of the practice of imprisoning debtors in at least seven of the 11 counties it examined. In some cases, the debts were as small as a few hundred dollars.

“The use of debtors’ prison is an outdated and destructive practice that has wreaked havoc upon the lives of those profiled in this report and thousands of others throughout Ohio,” the report says.

The ACLU did a study in 2010 revealing the use of debtors prison practices in five states, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia and Washington. That led to a comprehensive study by the ACLU of Ohio, released just this month, on the widespread practice of jailing people for debt.

Thousands of poor Ohioans face the prospect of incarceration, according to the study, even though imprisoning someone for a debt that person can not pay is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, a 1983 United States Supreme Court decision (declaring this practice to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution), the Ohio Constitution, the Ohio Revised Code and numerous decisions by the Ohio Supreme Court.

Take a journey from Christopher Columbus to the present, in “A Nation Adrift.”

It is legal in Ohio to jail someone for refusing to pay a court fine. But first, a judge must determine the defendant has the means to pay, but refuses to do so.

The ACLU of Ohio says it found “no evidence that any of these people were given hearings to determine whether or not they were financially able to pay their fines, as required by the law.”

In addition, the study points out, defendants may not be jailed for failure to pay court costs or restitution because those debts are civil, not criminal, in nature. Those debts must be recovered through civil debt collection methods, not through criminal sanctions.

The ACLU says courts in towns across Ohio are simply ignoring the requirements and jailing people who can’t pay their debts.

Ohio Public Defender Tim Young told the ACLU municipal courts in Ohio often ignore these laws in three ways:

  • Holding defendants in contempt for failure to pay fines and costs without due process, notice, or counsel;
  • Ordering defendants to “pay or appear,” and issuing arrest warrants for those who fail to comply;
  • Or, jailing defendants who are too poor to pay their court costs or restitution.

The ACLU of Ohio has called on the Ohio Supreme Court to look into the matter.

The Dayton Daily News reports Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is promising to meet with the ACLU of Ohio as soon as possible to discuss the findings, saying in a letter, it is “a matter that can and must receive further attention.”

The ACLU based its study on public records and interviews with those facing jail time for unpaid fines. The group also had staff members observe court proceedings.

The report said, observers saw “a process that did not make even a pretense of compliance with Ohio law,” and that “people facing jail time were informed of the total amount owed and, without any inquiry into their financial situations, assigned arbitrary monthly payment plans. At no time were they informed of their right to counsel.”

The report continued, “The court informed them that, if they did not stay current in these payment plans, they would be required to turn themselves in to jail on a specific date several months in the future.”

Additionally, “Some courts credited debtors $50 for each day they served in jail while others did not, despite the fact that this is mandated for all courts.”

The study says Ohio’s use of more than 300 mayor’s courts adds to the problem.

Ohio is one of only two states to allow mayor’s courts. The state allows them in municipalities with a population of more than 200 people, where there is no municipal court. The ACLU says these courts are largely unregulated and may hear only misdemeanor violations of local ordinances and state traffic laws. More than 84 percent of cases in these courts result from traffic tickets, and the defendant is found guilty 86 percent of the time. And, just as with municipal courts, mayor’s courts are jailing Ohioans in debtors’ prisons.

The study finds people are going to jail for debts so small, it sometimes costs more than their debts to jail them.

The cost of arresting, processing, and jailing low-income Ohioans can quickly exceed the few hundred dollars they may owe. It costs between $58 and $65 per night to lock someone in a county jail and about $400 to execute a warrant.

The ACLU says, “debtors’ prisons actually waste taxpayer dollars by arresting and incarcerating people who will simply never be able to pay their fines.”

The study found courts in Huron, Cuyahoga, and Erie counties were among the worst offenders.

The report reads, “In the second half of 2012, over 20 percent of all bookings in the Huron County Jail were related to failure to pay fines. In Cuyahoga County, the Parma Municipal Court jailed at least 45 people for failure to pay fines and costs between July 15 and August 31, 2012. During the same period in Erie County, the Sandusky Municipal Court jailed at least 75 people for similar charges.”

The ACLU finds the problem is made worse by the rise of poverty in the suburbs, a trend WND documented last month. “The number of people living in poverty in Ohio grew by 57.7 percent from 1999 to 2011, with the largest increase coming from suburban counties,” according to the study.

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