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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That would be b/c John Kasich's a TWIT. I don't care WHAT I say about him or anyone else acting like they think they're "all that" b/c they "earned their living through hard work."
Really? WHOSE hard work?


My dad in North Carolina was sent to prison for a year because he could not pay his court fines. I was unable to help pay the obligations to keep my dad out of prison being poor also. Then they sent him too far away instead of a local lockup where he could be seen, and assisted with a little funds to buy coffee, or to give cards, books..
..Unfortunately, the court system in NC inflates probation fines adding m ore debt to the guilty poor in hopes to send them to prison that they may keep the state prison workers jobs. Perhaps to pay back the contract prisons who gave political campaign gifts.


Working for the solicitor in Georgia, the only time I saw someone jailed for failure to pay court fines was after the person specifically asked for probation in order to pay off the fine then didn't show up for the monthly probation meetings and didn't pay the fines. The courts down here go out of their way to give people plenty of time to pay.

Also, most of the people I saw coming in who couldn't pay had new clothes, cellphones, jewelry, various things that they spent money on that could have been used to pay their fines.


Obey the law, go by the rules, follow the speed limit, keep insurance on your car, etc, you should not have any court fines to try to pay. Problem solved.


It's not the poeple's fault that they can't get adiquate employment so that they can come up with the money to pay their court fines. Where has America's compassion gone? It's like we've turned into a bunch of greedy, money-hunting slobs. The American citezens living in poverty should not be thrown in jail because they can't pay up a few petty fines. We should be helping them! I cannot understand why the big company goo-roos and the govenment can't seem to wrap their heads around the fact that not everynody makes millions of dollars a year. Maybe they should try living the way some of us do, then they can see how it feels. Congress thinks they know what's best for us? Well, surprise! They don't. Anyway, these people should have support, not a jail sentence.


people make mistakes in the lives, we dont live in a perfect world or glass house if we did life would be good. people would not be sick or broke, have a little compassionate for others and 2 minutes of patient goes a long, you never know what goes on it people lives and everyone DESERVE a 2nd chance, if they dont do right then there is a problem. everyone IS NOT created equal in this world! HAVE A HEART!!!


I was just on the inside for a minor charge and there was a girl serving in there with me who was doing 90 days, let me repeat that... NINETY DAYS behind bars, for fines less than $1,000.00. Ohio definitely isn't following the Constitution on this one.


It is completely nonsense that there is no sliding scale for fines, especially but not only, traffic fines. I remember my disgust when a lady in the most expensive and newest Mercedes Benz was chatting on her phone. I happened to mention that the fine was now over $100 for driving and talking on a cell phone. She pursed her lips and made a phhhht noise.


How about instead of worrying whether or not a person can pay their fines, we become more concerned about having them stay out of trouble in the first place. We have one if the most lenient court systems in the entire world yet people still feel they don't deserve the repercussions of their actions. Don't break the law and you won't have fines!


"We have one if the most lenient court systems in the entire world yet people still feel they don't deserve the repercussions of their actions. Don't break the law and you won't have fines!"

That is perhaps one of the most ignorant comments I have read in a long while. The United States is the leader in the entire world when it comes to incarceration. Our justice system is about money and revenge now, not justice. Fines and tickets are all about extra tax revenue so people who do not have money to fight these "fines" and injustice end up in this cycle of debtors prison. All police have to do is target the poor and the entire monsterous system is guaranteed a paycheck.


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