Sunday, Apr 7, 2013 7:31 PM UTC
The modern-day debtors' prisons push poor
defendants further into destitution
By Associated Press
Ohio — Several courts in Ohio are illegally jailing people because they
are too poor to pay their debts and often deny defendants a hearing to
determine if they’re financially capable of paying what they owe,
according to an investigation released Thursday by the Ohio chapter of
the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU likens the problem to
modern-day debtors’ prisons. Jailing people for debt pushes poor
defendants farther into poverty and costs counties more than the actual
debt because of the cost of arresting and incarcerating individuals, the
“The use of debtors’ prison is an outdated and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
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme
Court, responding to the ACLU’s request to take action, promised to
review the findings. O’Connor told the group in a letter Wednesday: “you
do cite a matter that can and must receive further attention.”
The report says courts in Huron, Cuyahoga, and Erie counties are among the worst offenders.
Among the report’s findings:
In the second half of last year, more than one in every five of all
bookings in the Huron County jail — originating from Norwalk Municipal
Court cases — involved a failure to pay fines.
— In suburban
Cleveland, Parma Municipal Court jailed at least 45 defendants for
failure to pay fines and costs between July 15 and August 31, 2012.
— During the same period, Sandusky Municipal Court jailed at least 75 people for similar charges.
Deanna O’Donnell of Parma Municipal Court said Thursday the court was
unaware of the issue until contacted earlier this week by the ACLU. She
said officials were examining the 45 cases in question.
“If there’s an issue here, a problem, we’re going to correct it,” O’Donnell said.
left for Norwalk and Sandusky municipal court officials Thursday
weren’t immediately returned. The ACLU also sent letters to officials at
Bryan, Richland County and Hamilton County municipal courts and
Springboro Mayor’s Court.
ACLU spokesman Mike Brickner said the group believes the practice is widespread in Ohio.
The report is a follow-up to a national 2010 report that focused on Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio and Washington.
report determined that many courts are violating a 1983 U.S. Supreme
Court decision that courts had to hold a hearing to determine why people
are unable to pay before sentencing them to incarceration.
report shows how, day after day, indigent defendants are imprisoned for
failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to manage,” according to
the 2010 report, ‘In For a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’
“In many cases, poor men and women end up jailed or
threatened with jail though they have no lawyer representing them,” the
A similar 2010 report by New York University’s
Brennan Center for Justice looked at the growth of court fees in
Florida. It concluded, in part, that the “current fee system creates a
self-perpetuating cycle of debt for persons re-entering society after
Courts are breaking the law by holding defendants
in contempt of court for failing to pay fines without proper notice or
allowing an attorney to be present, the report said. Courts are also
issuing arrests warrants for people who fail to show up and pay their
fines and jailing defendants who are too poor to pay, according to the
Court costs should be recovered through civil lawsuits, not jail time, the report said.
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