In a recent investigation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio found disturbing evidence of what many would consider an archaic, long-forgotten institution — debtors’ prison. The ACLU looked at 11 Ohio counties. In seven, it found indigent defendants illegally jailed because of their inability to pay fines and court costs in municipal and mayor’s courts.
The practice runs counter to a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found it violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. More, jailing indigent defendants for failure to pay fines and court costs violates the Ohio Constitution, the Ohio Revised Code and state court decisions.
Willfully refusing to pay can result in jail time, but only after a judge determines that an individual has the resources to make payments. A defendant must have legal counsel and be able to provide evidence about his or her finances. What the ACLU found was widespread neglect, courts unable to produce records of indigent defendants getting the proper hearings before going to jail.
Further analysis revealed that jailing the poor makes no budgeting sense. Besides the damage to individuals, the ACLU found the offending courts regularly spend more to execute warrants and jail defendants than the defendants actually owe. Some were jailed for failing to pay fines as low as $200. Municipal courts in Huron, Cuyahoga and Erie counties are among the most abusive.
Fortunately, the ACLU report has begun to get the attention it deserves. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court has promised to review the findings. In a letter this week, O’Connor said the matter “must receive further attention.” Meanwhile, officials at the Parma Municipal Court said they would review 45 cases where questions had been raised.
It is up to the Ohio Supreme Court to issue rules to ensure that Ohio courts prevent truly indigent defendants from being jailed for failure to pay fines and court costs. It is especially important to examine mayor’s courts, which operate with less accountability than municipal courts. As the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University aptly noted in a similar report three years ago, jail time for the poor creates a cruel and self-perpetuating cycle of debt.