Court Takes Swift Action to End Debtors’ Prison

Affiliate: ACLU of Ohio
February 5, 2014 12:00 am

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Ohio Supreme Court Creates Bench Card After ACLU Investigation Found Courts Jailing People Too Poor to Pay Fines

February 5, 2014

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CLEVELAND, OH – Today, the Supreme Court of Ohio distributed a new “bench card” to all of the state’s judges, giving much needed instructions to avoid the unconstitutional practice of sending people to jail when they owe the court fines and are unable to pay. The card lists the legal alternatives to jail, such as payment plans or forfeiting a driver’s license, as well as outlining the procedure for determining someone’s ability to pay.

“Debtors’ prison are not only unconstitutional, they are a cruel albatross that traps low-income people in a never-ending cycle of poverty, debt, and incarceration. Those who have been jailed for being poor have lost jobs, seen serious declines in their health, and faced family crises,” said ACLU of Ohio Director of Communications and Public Policy Mike Brickner. “We expect our courts to protect the vulnerable and seek justice. It is our hope that the Supreme Court of Ohio’s actions today have moved our courts closer to fulfilling that vision.”

The card results from The Outskirts of Hope, an ACLU of Ohio report that documented this unconstitutional practice in seven counties, and illustrated how debtors’ prison ruins lives and costs taxpayers. Courts in Georgia, Washington State, and many other states also use debtors’ prisons to collect fines. Ohio’s bench card is the first of its kind in the country.

In conjunction with the report, the ACLU of Ohio sent a letter to Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor asking her to create a clear plan to end debtors’ prisons in Ohio. The Chief Justice responded by holding a meeting with the ACLU and creating a plan to draft and distribute new instructions to courts across Ohio.

“Debtors’ prisons are an outdated relic of the past, but have thrived in Ohio. Hopefully, the Supreme Court of Ohio’s actions today will help ensure that no one else is illegally jailed simply for being poor,” added Brickner. “It’s been over 30 years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. It is high time for Ohio to end debtors’ prisons altogether.”

According to the law, courts are required to hold hearings to determine a defendants’ financial status before jailing them for failure to pay fines. If requested, defendants must be provided with counsel for these hearings and the courts cannot jail the defendant if she is unable to pay. Nevertheless, the ACLU of Ohio found clear evidence that courts across the state have been routinely jailing people without regard to whether they could afford to pay their fines.

“No longer should there be any confusion about the fact that both U.S. Constitution and state law prohibit courts from jailing people for being too poor to pay their fines,” said Brickner. “Courts that are still engaging in debtors’ prison practices are on notice that they can no longer ignore the Constitution, and if they do so, our state Supreme Court is watching.”

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