Still Locking People Up for Being Poor? Really?! It's 2014.

Debtors' prisons sound like ancient history, right? Unfortunately, they're all too common across the United States. In spite of the Constitution, case law, and common sense, low-income people are routinely jailed in places as far-flung as Georgia and Washington State simply because they cannot afford to pay their court fines.

Let's define court fines, because it's kind of shocking. "Court fines" could be as little as a couple hundred bucks because someone was pulled over while driving with an expired license. If you've just been laid off and have kids to feed, it might be hard to find a couple hundred extra bucks in your budget. Well, that can send you to lock up.

Not only does it cost the community quite a bit to jail someone (usually way in excess of the fine), but locking people up can trap them in the vicious cycle of poverty, debt, and incarceration that typifies the modern day debtors' prison. Individuals incarcerated because they can't pay minor court fines have lost their jobs, been evicted from their housing, suffered serious declines in their health, and faced family crises.

Not only are debtors' prisons wildly bad public policy, they are unconstitutional. And yet thousands of people are still beaten down by the justice system simply because they cannot pay their fines.

Today, as a result of ACLU of Ohio advocacy following the release of Outskirts of Hope, our report exposing debtor's prisons in Ohio, the practice has been dealt a major blow in our state. The Ohio Supreme Court released a "bench card" to every state and municipal court judge in Ohio explaining how they must avoid sending people to jail who are too poor to pay their court fines. This bench card is the first of its kind in the nation. It marks an unprecedented move by the Ohio Supreme Court to educate and hold accountable judges who ignore the law. The card provides judges with the legal alternatives to collect payments, and the procedure they must follow to determine a person's ability to pay their court fines.

Ending the debtors' prison cycle can turn lives around. Take the story of Jack Dawley, who had convictions from the early 1990's due to his addiction to drugs and alcohol. In the mid-1990's Jack became sober and tried to get his life back on track. Despite being sober for 14 years and paying what he could on his fines, Jack could not escape debtors' prison. For years, Jack faced the threat of jail every time he fell behind on his payments, or had to miss work at his construction site due to a chronic back injury. Even after Jack had lost his job and his home, his judge still threatened to send him to jail if he did not pay his fines.

Jack had reached his lowest point when he decided to contact the ACLU of Ohio.

As a result of our report and intervention, Jack's life has taken a dramatic turn. Since we released Outskirts of Hope, some Ohio courts even started changing their practices prior to release of the Ohio Supreme Court's bench card. The Supreme Court made it pretty clear that the Judge in Jack's case needed to follow the law and not send Jack to jail because of an inability to pay court fines. I spoke to Jack by phone last night to tell him about the release of the bench card and he was a different man. Jack informed me that he has a job at a fruit packing plant and was recently promoted to a floor supervisor. He saved money and was able to get an apartment, reinstate his drivers' license, and get his car working again. In 10 months, he has gone from no hope and no opportunity to professing, "the sky is the limit."

By taking action today, the Ohio Supreme Court has struck a deep blow against unconstitutional debtors' prisons and restores hope to those trapped by poverty and injustice. It's time the rest of the country did the same.

Learn more about debtors prisons and other civil liberty issuesSign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

View comments (26)
Read the Terms of Use


when the states' God is money, what do you expect, charity? hahahahaha


is this what you call freedom of expression, ok.


first of all, fines are giving as a sentence instead of jail time. your sentence is $300 in fines and or 30 days in jail but the maximum may be 60 days if you do not pay that $300 the court has a rate for what kind of credit you receive for each day in jail, that credit is enough that you will not exceed the maximum sentence. once you receive enough credit you are released, but a fee for each day you are in jail is now tacked on. so you do 30 days you earn $300 and are relased but now ow $10 a day for your incarceration, you cannot be incarcerated again for that, it goes on your credit report. your fines are not a debt they are a sentence if you do not pay you have to serve that sentence some how otherwise there would be no motivation to pay your fines. this is how it does and should work. the aclu is wrong.


Complete ignorance, you do the crime you pay the fine, or do the time. Oooo I'm poor I can't pay... Well boo f*ing hoo follow the laws. And yes we have a pretty lenient system, if you don't think so try stealing in certain middle eastern countries, they may not throw you in jail, but you'll be missing a hand.
Calling it debtors prison is disingenuous, you didn't pay a fine. It's not the same as defaulting on a loan.


@ number 9: " We have one if the most lenient court systems in the entire world..." Are you kidding me??? If the US has one of the most lenient court systems in the world, why are there more people incarcerated in the US than any other country? In Europe, they are CLOSING prisons due to lack of criminals. You really need to check some statistics before you post nonsense like this that simply isn't true. The US does not have a lenient court system. You obviously have never been in a courtroom facing a judge.


Wow. There are two sides to every story. On one hand, folks who are assigned a 50 or 100$ fee / fine per month and can not pay it are often not able to do so because of their continued addiction to what ever substance it was that got them into the initial trouble to begin with. For those that really deserve debt forgiveness, I wish there was a "jubilee" provision in place that would forgive legal fees of folks who paid as best they could and had no repeat offenses or legal trouble over a significant period of time. And for those that fail to pay due to continued addiction issues, I wish there were more help and recovery resources.


Wow, I'm completely surprised by all the support for deadbeats. You do the crime you pay the fine, or do the time. But, but...I'm too poor to pay. BooHoo...Then you go to jail to pay your restitution. Maybe next time you don't break the law. Seems like common sense to me, but I guess that's lacking for many folks in this country.

Calling it debtors prison is disingenuous, were talking about legal fines not defaulting on a loan, big difference. Everyone wants more "liberty" but are not willing to take personal responsibility when they mess up. How sad.


The private, for-profit prison systems may have something to do with it. A legal way for private companies to get your tax dollar.


I'm surprised no one's mentioned the financial incentives for having people on these minor charges incarcerated---on the taxpayer's (read: generally also middle-class) dime. How many of these jails or prisons are run by private corporations?


seeing people in "new" clothes says that they can pay their court fines? have you ever heard of thrift stores? they sell clothes that look like new to people who otherwise wouldn't have them. next, the cell phone can be a gift of have been paid for before they lost their job. jewelry is another easy one. ever heard of knock offs?
before judging people on how they look of what they have just remember most people aren't always poor, and when you do have little money there are places and people that help by giving away their own goods either free or for very little. maybe if we all used our hearts instead of our wallets, we would have ended poverty in america long ago.


Stay Informed