BACKGROUND ON DEBTORS PRISONS
• Debtors prison practices violate the Constitution. Over two decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the practice of jailing individuals who are unable to pay their fines and court costs.
• Debtors prison practices also violate Ohio law. The Ohio Constitution, Ohio Revised Code, and the decisions of Ohio courts prohibit incarcerating indigent defendants for failure to pay their fines.
• The law requires a meaningful hearing into an individual’s financial resources before the court may impose jail time for failure to pay fines.
Sources: The Ohio Justice and Policy Center and ACLU of Ohio
A debtors’ prison, once referred to a detention facility where people were locked up for failure to pay a debt. Now, instead of a debt, it’s the fees and fines owed to municipal courts that is leading to a modern day debtor’s prison, according to the ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Policy Justice Center.
Both organizations say new research reveals people are being jailed for being unable to pay fines or fees. However, courts in Butler and Warren counties run counter to these claims, with many setting up payment plans for offenders instead of the high cost of jailing people.
The ACLU since 2009, has profiled five states, including Ohio, that imprison people who cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines. The organization released a report this year with its findings. The results of the research were eye-opening, according to ACLU Senior Policy Director Mike Brickner.
He told the Journal-News that court systems in several states, particularly in Ohio, were found to be raising revenue by punishing people who commit minor offenses with fines, fees and penalties that stack up, and end up driving them into poverty. The ACLU’s investigation also revealed that some courts often jail people illegally for nonpayment, putting them at risk of losing their jobs and homes.
How area courts stack up
Courts in Butler and Warren counties had more than $14 million in unpaid fines and fees, records show, when the ACLU started looking into debtor’s prisons in 2009, but none of them had issues that faced the areas deemed as problem spots by the organization, according to Brickner.
Butler County Clerk of County Mary Swain wasn’t surprised to hear that this area isn’t a trouble spot. She said every attempt is made to collect fines from people who owe money, and jailing someone who can’t pay is not a first resort to solving the problem.
Swain said that Butler County also uses a new program authorized by the state that allows the Attorney General’s Office to collect money for local cities and municipalities if they have exhausted attempts to collect fees and fines that are owed.
“We go through our regular process to collect and then if that doesn’t work it goes to the AG and then they can take money through different means and that has been pretty successful for us,” Swain said. “What we usually do in civil collections is send three notices. If no response is made after three notices they are turned over to AG’s office to collect on our behalf. It is usually not uncommon between those notices that they will come in and set up a payment plan ...”
Middletown, Franklin and Fairfield also have similar operation procedures and neither jurisdiction was found to be operating a debtor’s prison set-up, according to the ACLU.
Swain said that locally, the probation departments have had a high rate of success in dealing with setting up payment plans and collection.
Finance Director Lucinda Gentry said Butler County has received $17,403 since it joined the Attorney General’s program nearly three years ago.
“The program primarily deals with fines and fees involved with civil cases, rarely criminal,” she said.
Swain said she intends to expand the collection process with the state because it has been successful.
What the report uncovered
The ACLU investigation found some Ohio residents were being put in jail for small amounts of money owed, despite the constitutional violation, and the economic evidence that it costs the state more to pay for their jail sentence than the amount of the debt they owe.
The cost of arresting, processing, and jailing low-income Ohioans, by contrast, multiplies rapidly. It costs between $58 and $65 per night to incarcerate an individual in county jail and approximately $400 dollars to fully execute a warrant according to the report’s findings.
Brickner said the worst offenders appeared to be the Huron Municipal Court, Parma Municipal Court and Sandusky Municipal Court.
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.
“We heard from people in the community that they were being sent to jail because they could not pay their fines,” Brickner said. “They would be released and then in a short time they would be sent to jail again.”
Brickner said the ACLU’s findings were submitted to the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, a group tasked with recommending changes to Ohio’s criminal laws for the purpose of finding more efficient ways law enforcement can deal with crime.
If you owe it, pay it
Ed Letessa, a professor and director of UC’s School of Criminal Justice, said the whole idea behind the ACLU’s and Ohio Policy Center’s investigation is to encourage courts to follow the law and not jail people for the unpaid fines and fees, but rather to make people accountable without incarceration.
“We are not supposed to lock people up, but I have seen reports from the ACLU that judges are locking up people for not paying fines and in some ccases judges will say they have money for cigarettes and booze but they can’t pay fines,” Letessa said. “It’s one thing to sue or garnish and another thing to lock them up.”
Letessa becomes roiled when he thinks of a double standard as it is applied to the poor.
“A lot of big corporations that get fined they never pay. Courts aren’t going to close a business down because they don’t want to put people out of work,” he said.
He said the U.S. Supreme Court and the Ohio Supreme Court will have to make it clear to judges that they can’t jail people for being indigent and unable to pay fines or fees.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio released a new “bench card” with instructions to Ohio judges to help them avoid debtors’ prison practices in their courtrooms.
“Justice O’Connor came up with a bench card telling every judge in the state what the law states so judges wouldn’t claim ignorance of the law and she talked about enforcement too,” Brickner said. “If we heard of a judge violating the law we should report them to her and she would intervene and find out if the actions were true.”
It is still allowed for judges to conduct indigency hearings to make sure nobody can “scam the system,” Brickner said. “I would argue that we need to still understand the costs to the taxpayer of incarcerating poor or indigent people for not paying fees or fines.”