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.

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Anonymous

It should be stated as a clear violation of human rights to be arrested for debt. No one wants to be out of a job and unable to pay their bills. Individual people trying to make a living did not create this socio-economic system. So it's absurd to hold them responsible for it's downfall.

Anonymous

I used to be a Republican (I won't say I still am since I found out what they did with denying Veterans further assistance to become productive members of society after they return) and I grew up in a Republican family.
Which is why I have absolutely no problem with saying that the only time Republicans SUPPORT "do the crime, do the time" is when it ISN'T them being told to do it.
They all act like they think all the rules are for everyone else b/c they're so "special," so "different," that none of the rules apply to them.
Which in turn gives me no ability to listen to them tell ANYbody else what to do, and I have no tolerance for when they get on their high horse about something.

Anonymous

I suppose these name-callers would be saying that Charles Dickens' father was a dead-beat too, even though predatory lending and profiteering efforts were the reasons his dad ended up in debtor's prison.

Dickens had to work to pay his dad's way out of prison, and the predatory behavior of those who have a place in the Fourth Circle of Hell when they get there is what he was thinking of when he wrote 'A Christmas Carol.'

Anonymous

Hey I have a friend who had a small child that needed to be taken to the ER , at the time they had no insurance or money but later they were able to get him on the state medical and they paid that bill . But guess what my friend was picked up on a bench warrant and jailed for the weekend for that paid bill . They had moved but before they had moved they got mail saying it was still due so they got the proof from the family services and thought it was all taken care of until he ended up in jail . Tell me how that is legal ? This happened in Upper Sandusky Ohio.

Anonymous

The people on here that justify the current justice system are those who have never really had to deal with it personally. I've never gotten into trouble more than minor traffic offenses and even in that have seen injustice play out.
My example below is by no means severe. It ended with me paying an extra $90 between the fine and court costs. Not anything to fuss about when you make $70/hr (although I was still a college student at the time). The whole point of this is that our justice system is corrupt down to the most minor issues and if you think otherwise I encourage you to go sit in your local courtroom for a few nights and see what goes on. Just keep your audible gasps to a minimum or else you'll get held in contempt.

When a cop gave me 3 tickets (one of which was legitimate). I showed up to court four times to have the other two thrown out (they were for lack of licensure and insurance and I had hard evidence of both). The judge continued to postpone my case and told me that it would keep getting pushed back unless I made a deal with the prosecutor who would agree to throw one out and do the minimum fine on the other. I settled for minor injustice rather than having to continue driving 40 miles to the courthouse repeatedly.

Anonymous

My son had a traffic ticket. He requested a court appointed attorney, but was told that since he was not facing jail time for the offense he did not qualify. When he went to court and explained about his health problems (with documented proof), and his inability to pay the $600 fine, he was put on private probation. Now his fine is three times what is was one month ago, and he has to pay for drug screens and other fees or he will go to jail. That is what the private probation office has told him. I work between 40-60 hours a week to support three other children at home and my husband who has been disabled for the past two years (his SSI hearing is in October). We don't have the money to pay the $400 a month. I've been selling off the things my Grandmother left to me when she died (she passed from Alzheimers' after living in my home for a decade). At the rate that the amount owed is increasing, if I sell everything we own it will never be enough. The comments about how people should never do anything wrong, or have better paying jobs, and they wouldn't have these problems are untrue. My husband was arrested a few years ago, and he was innocent of the charge of counterfiting money. In court, the prosecuter said that my diabetic husband, who suffers from neuropathy should have been able to feel the difference in the bill and a real one. To show that he, in fact, could not feel much at all in his fingers, he lit them on fire to demonstrate. If he had not done this, he too would probably be facing injustice that hard-working, honest people cannot afford. Sure, we could pay the fines. We would just need to violate the laws about selling prescription drugs, and sell my husband's medications for profit. Does Georgia want us to be honest and do our best? That's not the message we're getting out here in Gwinnett.

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