They are unconstitutional. They are against state law. And yet, debtors’ prisons – jailing people because they are too poor to pay their court fines – are common across Ohio, according to a report released today by the ACLU of Ohio.
Most people who receive a traffic ticket or a fine related to a criminal conviction simply pay it and move on with their lives. But for the poor, court fines and fees may be completely unaffordable. Thirty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to imprison debtors simply because they cannot pay court fines or fees. State law in Ohio also requires that a judge determine whether a person can pay a fine before she is jailed. Nonetheless, many courts throughout the state are simply ignoring the law and routinely incarcerating people multiple times for failing to pay their fines.
Over the past several months, I have traveled across the state meeting with people who were tossed in jail because they could not afford to pay court fines, which were sometimes as low as $200. While the details of their stories are different, I kept hearing the same, sad refrain: debtors’ prison has ruined my life and I cannot escape.
The stories are collected in our report, but I want to share a heartbreaking one here.
I first met John Bundren and Samantha Reed about six months ago. They have a daughter, Allie, who is now nine months old. They’re both in their early 20s. Samantha never graduated high school, and worked as a maid until Allie’s birth. John has only been able to get seasonal work picking vegetables or as a performer at a haunted house during Halloween.
During John’s teens, he struggled with alcohol addiction, and received multiple convictions for drinking under age and public intoxication. His court fines and costs totaled nearly $3,000. Samantha also had a misdemeanor conviction and has a few hundred dollars in fines.
When I met with the couple, they recounted how they often had to decide whether to make payments on their fines or buy diapers for Allie. With no jobs, they had to scrimp and save to pay anything, and oftentimes they had to make the heartbreaking decision which of their fines they would pay on in a given month. John chose to pay on Samantha’s fines before his own, so she could avoid jail and take care of Allie. They have had to make that choice four times, with John serving a total of 41 days in jail simply because he could not afford to pay their fines.
Between childcare and serving jail time, neither of them has been able to get a permanent job. The last time I met with them, they were staying in a friend’s apartment. They shared a tiny room, with Allie’s crib in the corner and seat covers and pillows on the floor where John and Samantha sleep.
Despite all these problems, they remain optimistic. Samantha says, "I want to get my GED. I plan to take the test again when I have a stable place to live."
"My plan for our family is to start fresh," she added. "Get [John] a job, start working more with Allie, get a car and a license and some insurance. To be comfortable; not have to worry as much."
Unfortunately, John and Samantha’s story is not unique—Ohio’s senseless and illegal system of incarcerating people unable to pay their fines affects thousands of lives. But John, Samantha, and the ACLU are not going to sit idly by while this happens any longer.
Today, in addition to releasing a report highlighting stories of people trapped in the debtors’ prison cycle, the ACLU contacted seven courts that are violating the law by jailing low-income people who cannot pay their fines and urged them to stop immediately.
Those seven courts are merely the tip of the iceberg. The ACLU has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to issue guidelines forcing courts to obey the law and hold accountable judges who engage in debtors’ prison practices. We have also asked people concerned about debtors’ prison to take action and contact the state Supreme Court.
One thing is sure: until systemic change occurs and courts are forced to obey the law, stories like John and Samantha’s will be all too common. Debtors’ prisons are a black eye on our justice system. Our conscience—and our Constitution—deserve better.
For more information, and to take action to stop debtors’ prisons in Ohio, go to www.acluohio.org/debtorsprison.