Ohio’s Chief Justice Stands Up to Jeff Sessions in Support of Low-Income People

In late December, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded crucial guidance that advised courts not to unfairly punish people simply for being poor. While Sessions furthers the criminalization of poverty, Ohio’s chief justice is reminding her judges that the people who pass through their courtrooms are not ATMs.

On January 29, Maureen O’Connor sent a letter to all Ohio trial judges to ensure they were aware that the law has not changed and “court cases are not business transactions.” Her thoughtful letter is a stark contrast to Jeff Sessions’ abrupt decision to rescind a guidance that had helped judges and court administrators around the country reform court practices to guard against abuses like debtors’ prisons — the jailing of poor people who cannot afford to pay court fines and fees.

O’Connor made clear that despite the department’s decision, the Constitution remains the supreme law of the land and that the rights enshrined in that document are unchanged. She also reminded judges of their obligation to serve the public and promote fairness and equal treatment of rich and poor:

“We have a special responsibility to act in a manner that bolsters public trust and confidence in the fair administration of justice for everyone. Practices that penalize the poor simply because of their economic state; that impose unreasonable fines, fees, or bail … upon on our citizens to raise money or cave to local funding pressure; or that create barriers to access to justice are simply wrong. No rescission of guidance by the [DOJ] changes that.”

As co-chair of the National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail Practices, O’Connor has long been a leader in Ohio and the nation on reforming practices that criminalize poverty. With the stroke of a pen, O’Connor showed leadership at a time when the country needs it. Her letter brings attention to the devastating impact of excessive court fines and fees and bail practices on the lives of low-income people and the justice system’s obligation to protect people’s rights, even when they are poor.

In Ohio, particularly, O’Connor’s letter is crucial.

During the ACLU of Ohio’s 2013 investigation into debtors’ prison practices across the state, we met countless people who were tethered to the criminal justice system simply because they were too poor to pay off court fines and fees. We issued a report that told the story of countless more people who were given unjustly high court fines and fees that they could not afford to pay and rigid payment plans that kept them trapped in the grips of poverty.

One young couple owed thousands of dollars in fines and fees from low-level convictions, such as disorderly conduct and drinking underage. Each month, the couple was forced to make the impossible choice of whose fines they would continue to pay so one of them could stay at home with their infant while the other would spend another 10 days in jail for fines that they simply could not afford to pay. Our report also told the story of a man who could not afford to pay fines because he was recently laid off. With no health insurance and mounting medical debt, he simply could not pay his court fines.

After hearing these stories, many Ohio judges admitted that they were unaware that existing laws, including Ohio statutes and the U.S. Constitution, limit the ways in which court fines and fees can be imposed and collected. Chief Justice O’Connor took action to make sure that state judges would no longer be confused. She issued a detailed bench card outlining the rules for collecting fines and fees, ensured that judges throughout Ohio were trained on those rules, and held accountable judges who continued to violate the law by jailing people for nonpayment without giving them a hearing on their ability to pay.

The stark reality is that in many courts across the country, the size of your bank account determines the type of justice you receive. But Chief Justice O’Connor’s actions show that judges can chart a path toward fairness and restore trust in the justice system. ACLU affiliates in Mississippi, Washington, New Hampshire, and Michigan, are continuing this work – implementing reforms, leading community conversations, and making progress.

The abdication of leadership by the Department of Justice in the fight against debtors’ prisons and other injustices stemming from abusive court fines and fees has opened a path to leadership for others. Chief Justice O’Connor took the first step forward. Other state chief justices should follow suit and remind judges in their states that the U.S. Constitution remains the law of the land, regardless of what Jeff Sessions may think or do.

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Anonymous

It seems like U.S. Attorneys at DOJ could play a primary role in minimizing these abuses. Unequal enforcement of any law is not just a violation of the 14th Amendment. There are federal "color of law" statutes that define and clarify every constitutional right - including the 14th Amendment.
Localities have created a legal system that games the 14th Amendment protections, but U.S. Attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice could help.

The U.S. Constitution mandates, by law, equal protection and equal treatment. If police in the city are conducting intrusive searches on city kids, the police in the nearby suburbs are legally required to also. U.S. Attorneys could enforce this equal treatment.

Since many states, like Virginia , don't allow it's cities to ANNEX surrounding suburbs, it's hard for federal prosecutors to protect the 14th Amendment rights of residents for equal treatment under the law. If those suburbs were physically relocated to rural America, they would not be wealthy at all. They are only wealthy due to their proxinity to the bigger cities.

For example: most experts - including police leaders - agree that marijuana usage is roughly equal in inner-cities as it is in their their suburbs. A police officer and prosecutor in Richmond, Virginia is usually not the same agency as the nearby county of Henrico, Virginia just blocks or miles away. While poor kids in Richmond may receive overly intrusive searches for marijuana, wealthier kids in the suburb of Henrico County will likely never be searched for marijuana - although the rates are probably about equal. The net result is mostly African-American and minority kids get sent to prison or end up with a record. Localities avoid legal responsibility since the suburban-government is entirely separate from the city-government. It's hard to make a 14th Amendment case, although two kids could live one block away from each other.

U.S. Attorneys should fix this 14th Amendment problem which is also defined by federal statutes!

Anonymous

In Ohio, the maximum fine for recreational marijuana is $150. The maximum fine for underage consumption is $1,000 and 180 days in jail. So quit complaining about marijuana crimes being treated unfairly.

Oh Wow

This comment is wrong on so many levels it hurts.

The 14th amendment applies equal protection to state laws, the 5th amendment applies equal protection to federal laws.
"Color of law" means that an action appear to be made legal by a Statute, not whatever OP may think here.
Localities are subject to state legal systems, they do not circumvent state laws.
"equal treatment" isn't a thing.
Municipality wealth has nothing to do with the 14th amendment, or the DOJ.
Illegal search and seizure is a violation of the 4th amendment, not the 14th.
US Attorneys Generals have no power to alter statutes or the US constitutions.

Tl:dr: Please beware of word salad.

Henry

Thank you judge for standing for the right of justice not ideology of a person in white house that stands for Jim crow laws.It takes the right consciousness to stand right thank you.

Anonymous

What’s so “right” catering to criminals? We all should be subject to the same penalty

Anonymous

Maybe if these poor people would not break the law, they would not have to worry about fines, fees, and jail. Once they realize they are going to get nothing for breaking a law, they will continue to break that law over and over.

Helen Loeb

The point is that an alternate punishment is needed rather than unaffordable fines and fees, such as community service. Additionally, you are assuming that poor people shouldn’t ever break the law because they can’t afford the consequences, whereas more affluent citizens can break the law and easily pay the fine, and are then able to break laws “over and over.”

Anonymous

Being charged an amount that you can afford, that won't put you into debt, isn't nothing. Everyone makes mistakes, rich or poor. So instead of commenting about "these poor people", maybe just stick to commenting about people. Just people. Leave your bigoted views out of it.

Can't afford th...

Simple. Fixed it.

Now on ridiculous taxes...we can talk.

Bigyaz

So you’re saying that if you’re rich you can break all the laws you want and never face punishment, just write a check. Guess you’re right: Look at Trump and all the crooks around him.

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