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Jailing the Poor

By Margo Pierce · February 15th, 2006 · All The News That Fits
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Stacking the deck against the underprivileged isn't something any public official admits, but that's what happens in Hamilton County when a poor person winds up in the criminal justice system.

It's unconstitutional to be jailed for an inability to pay fines and/or court fees. But it routinely happens in Hamilton County because public defenders don't do an important part of their job, according to a Feb. 6 ruling by U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel.

A 2003 class action lawsuit filed by attorney Robert Newman charged that public defenders failed to provide adequate representation because they didn't ask clients if they could afford to pay fines and failed to request indigency hearings to keep them out of jail.

The defendant in the suit, the Hamilton County Public Defender Commission, argued that, as a voluntary board, it didn't have control over the actions of individual attorneys. They also claimed no "day-to-day supervision" responsibilities.

Spiegel rejected that argument.

"Defendant's attempt to frame this case as one in which individual attorneys are making tactical decisions falls flat, when the record before the court shows that defendants systematically were incarcerated on fines with no request for an inquiry into their ability to pay," Spiegel's ruling says.

"There is no tactical value in failing to uphold fundamental constitutional rights."

After noting that public defenders are responsible for upholding the rights of indigent defendants, Spiegel said ignoring that duty has become routine.

"The practice in Hamilton County of jailing on fines without an indigency inquiry appears to have become so endemic that the entire system considers it normal," the ruling says.

Spiegel postponed a ruling on damages until a March 15 hearing. The lawsuit requested $118.71 per day, the amount specified in the Ohio Revised Code for wrongful imprisonment. The Public Defender Commission said it can't pay any damages -- an argument whose irony wasn't lost on the judge.

"It strikes the court as ironic in this case pertaining to indigency that defendants raise as a defense to liability the argument that, if the commission is held liable, the commission would be unable to pay the judgment," Spiegel wrote.

The ruling said the claim of no budget won't stop damages from being awarded because the commission is an entity of Hamilton County, which has funds available.

Newman says the case should serve as a wake-up call.

"The time has come to pay some attention to the public defender system," he says. "It needs a bigger investment in terms of staff and resources. Our public defender office has got to mirror the prosecutor's office in terms of professionalism, staff and resources. The system doesn't work when the lawyer for the defendant is on his knees."

Adequate resources should be expended to secure basic freedoms, according to Newman.

"There has to be some equality between the lawyer for the state and the lawyer for the defendant whoever the defendant is, rich or poor," he says.

Some changes are already underway, including the appointment of a new deputy director for the Public Defender Commission.

"I really look forward to when the public defender's office is the equal to the prosecutor's office," Newman says.

Persons who were represented by a public defender, jailed for failure to pay fines and didn't have an indigency hearing between 2001 and 2003 might be eligible for compensation. Contact Robert Newman at 513-639-7000.



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