A new report from the ACLU of Ohio released today suggests that in many courts across Ohio, it's a crime just to be poor.
The report, titled The Outskirts of Hope, delineates how several courts across Ohio, including Hamilton County Municipal Court, are unlawfully jailing people because they’re too impoverished to pay court fines.
It’s a system called “debtors’ prisons,” a tool in which people are jailed for debts as small as a few hundred dollars, even when the offense committed could have been something as minor as allowing a dog to walk off its leash in public, according to Mike Brickner, ACLU Ohio's director of communications.
“Today across Ohio, municipalities routinely imprison those who are unable to pay fines and court costs despite a 1983 United States Supreme Court decision declaring this practice to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution,” reads the report.
It’s referring to Bearden v. Georgia, the landmark Supreme Court case in which the courts ruled it was unlawful to imprison someone for failure to pay a criminal fine unless the non-payment was “willful,” also upheld in the Ohio Constitution and Ohio Revised Code. That means that if a judge is able to determined than an individual actually does have the financial resources available to pay a court fine but refuses to do so, he or she is subject to incarceration, not for actually failing to pay the fines but for willfully refusing to do so.
In the case of not being able to afford the fine, the jailing is for a civil misdoing, not a criminal one, and, according to the ACLU, that’s not something that merits jail time costly to the state of Ohio.
The report examined 11 different counties in Ohio and found that seven of courts in at least seven counties, including Bryan Municipal Court, Hamilton County Municipal Court, Mansfield Municipal Court, Parma Municipal Court, Sandusky Municipal Court, Springboro Mayor’s Court and Norwalk Municipal Court, were using some form of “debtors’ prison” practices by illegally jailing people for not paying fines without the judge-certified ruling that they’re financially capable of doing so.
In one finding, the ACLU points out that the staff at the Norwalk Municipal Court’s Clerk of Court Office in Huron County “openly admitted that whenever court records showed a person was incarcerated for ten days on a ‘contempt’ charge, this meant he or she had most likely been jailed for failure to pay fines.”
The ACLU’s investigation found that over a six-month period, 22 percent — more than one in five — of the total bookings at the Huron County Jail were related to failure to pay fines.
ACLU staff members attended multiple contempt hearings in the Norwalk Municipal Court and found a pattern for dealing with non-payment at hearings, noting that “people facing jail time were informed of the total amount owed and, without any inquiry into their financial situations, assigned arbitrary monthly payment plans. At no time were they informed of their right to counsel. The court informed them that, if they did not stay current in these payment plans, they would be required to turn themselves in to jail on a specific date several months in the future.”
That’s where the vicious cycle begins; if the fines weren’t paid and the individual didn’t report to jail, he or she would be taken to jail and incarcerated for 10 days with no bond. Ten days later, they’d be released with an extra stack of fines involved in the arrest, creating more crippling debt and often causing this process to be repeated.
The number of people living in poverty grew by 57.7 percent in Ohio from 1999 to 2011, according to the report — a trend mirrored across the Midwest. The ACLU calls for courts to be more transparent in communicating defendants their rights, consistently hold hearings to assess defendants' financial viability and "willfulness" to pay accumulated fines and provide retroactive debt credits to those wrongfully incarcerated based on circumstances of poverty.
Brickner says ACLU Ohio sent a letter to Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O'Connor outlining the report, and he's hopeful the Supreme Court will issue statewide guidelines to make the laws extremely clear to judges across the state.
"With these 11 cases, we believe they're just the tip of the iceberg," says Brickner.