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In late December, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded crucial guidance that advised courts not to unfairly punish people simply for being poor.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

Thank you Judge for having compassion in your heart. We have way to many people ( Jeff Sessions) that just don't care about others but only for themselves and only there beliefs. I truly appreciate the stand that you took .

Anonymous

There is only two ways to punish defendants .....
Jail or fines. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation whines they have to many people in prison/jail and then whine when you don't put them in jail and give them fines. Maximum fines are set by the legislature. So if fines are too high it isn't the Judge's fault.

Anonymous

So, the penalty for crime should be based on economic status. If you can't do the fine don't do the crime.

Anonymous

Yes. Seems criminals have money right to complain. Criminal justice reform has created many benefits for criminals and now they don’t want to pay their fees.

Anonymous

The couple this article states were treated unfairly were convicted of toms of violations. And they complain that they have to pay the fees?
AND they have an infant baby? Sounds like burdens to society.

Anonymous

Break the law and assigned a fine to essentially avoid jail time. Don't pay the fine on time and we whine it's the debtors prison?!? How about don't break the law that got you fined in the first place? Also back in the 80's journalists would have sourced or quoted Jeff Sessions directives, but alas we only get the 1 judge narrative, but the ACLU is not news...just pretending to be.

Ebony and Ivory

Money is the Root of all EVIL! Anyone here read a bible these days? Evidently, The only one doing their JOB. Judge Maureen O'Conner.
Reality. We all don't care about the same things. Most of which you cannot take with you when you die anyway. Welcome to Hell's Fury. Selfishness is a Cowardly Act/Behavior! #Gooddaytoall

JoAnn

And a woman shall lead them! Thank God for Justice O'Connor. The almighty said that when the time comes, He will use women to lead and bring order - thank you Justice O'Connor and I hope many more judges follow in your foot steps and help justices remember the true meaning of the law as applied to all people.

Anonymous

Alternate headline:

"Ohio judges admit they are unaware of existing laws, including Ohio statutes and the U.S. Constitution."

Jeffrey Westbrooks

"The stark reality is that in many courts across the country, the size of your bank account determines the type of justice you receive."
This in itself is only bad when it's a cudgel to be used on the economically suppressed. If, instead, it was tied to your higher end income people for parking fines, speeding tickets, and such the higher end income people would actually feel some monetary pain when racing their expensive trinkets on our roads, which they don't even want to pay for.

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