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ACLU catches Ohio jailing those too poor to pay fines

Published time: April 06, 2013 00:39
Edited time: May 09, 2013 13:46
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A new ACLU report accuses Ohio courts of imprisoning people who are unable to pay court fees. The group, which claims to have found evidence in seven counties, likened the practice to a resurgence of debtor’s prisons - which were outlawed by the 1830s.

Entitled “The Outskirts of Hope,” the report also accuses Ohio judges of consistently denying those locked up in such circumstances court hearings to prove their financial status.

Supreme Court precedent and Ohio law make clear that local courts and jails should not function as debtors’ prisons,” said American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Carl Takei. “Yet many mayors’ courts and some municipal courts jail people without making any attempt whatsoever to determine whether they can afford to pay their fines.

Being poor is not a crime in this country,” said ACLU staff attorney Richard Goodman, who was quoted in the group’s announcement. “Incarcerating people who cannot afford to pay fines is both unconstitutional and cruel – it takes a tremendous toll on precisely those families already struggling the most.” 

Maureen O’Connor, Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, told the ACLU on Wednesday that she would investigate the matter.

The ACLU reported that 22% of all bookings in the Huron County jail between May 2012 and October 2012 were in some way related to an inmate’s failure to pay a court debt. The Outskirts of Hope also indicates that between July 15 and August 31, 2012, Parma Municipal Court (in suburban Cleveland) jailed at least 45 defendants for their inability to pay a fine while a Sandusky court locked up 75 people for the same reason.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that it costs Ohio taxpayers between $50 and $75 to jail person for one night. With an average fine of around $900, in some cases that cost eventually totals more than the unpaid fine itself. Seemingly unaware of the report, Parma Municipal Court judge Deanna O’Donnell told reporters that if there was evidence to prove the ACLU’s claim, then the courts would “fix it.”

Still, despite only focusing on seven counties, ACLU Director of Communications and Public Policy Mike Brickner warned that the problem is widespread across Ohio.

Not only are those courts violating the law, they are losing money doing it,” he said. “These practices are legally prohibited, morally questionable, and financially unsound. Nevertheless, they appear to be alive and well in Ohio. It’s like something out of a Charles Dickens novel.”