Criminal Justice

Ohio Supreme Court Takes Steps to End Debtors’ Prison Practices

02.05.14

The Supreme Court of Ohio has 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.

These instructions result 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 new bench card is the first of its kind in the country.

Incarcerating a person simply because he or she cannot afford to pay court costs and fines is prohibited by state law and unconstitutional. The ACLU of Ohio questioned one Erie County judge about his practice of jailing defendants who cannot or do not pay fines or fees, and spoken out against pay-to-stay jail schemes in Summit CountyMonroe County, and Franklin County.

Fighting debtors’ prisons has been a priority of the ACLU of Ohio for many years. In October 2010, the ACLU released “In For A Penny”, a startling new report that profiles five states — including Ohio — that imprison people because they cannot pay fines. The report highlights the negative consequences for budgets and public safety, noting that jailing one person for 30 days costs more than $1,500, causes disruptions in employment, and can contribute to recidivism.

Incarcerating a person simply because he or she cannot afford to pay court costs and fines is prohibited by state law and unconstitutional. The ACLU of Ohio questioned one Erie County judge about his practice of jailing defendants who cannot or do not pay fines or fees, and spoken out against pay-to-stay jail schemes in Summit County, Monroe County, and Franklin County.
Fighting debtors’ prisons has been a priority of the ACLU of Ohio for many years. In October 2010, the ACLU released “In For A Penny”, a startling new report that profiles five states — including Ohio — that imprison people because they cannot pay fines. The report highlights the negative consequences for budgets and public safety, noting that jailing one person for 30 days costs more than $1,500, causes disruptions in employment, and can contribute to recidivism.

Update: In late April, 2013, the ACLU met with Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor on this issue. In June, the Ohio Supreme Court announced that it will increase efforts to educate local courts on how they should handle indigent defendants. These efforts will include a publication for judges, magistrates, and other court officials that lists the appropriate procedures for indigency hearings.

In February 2014, The Supreme Court of Ohio released a new “bench card” giving much needed instructions to Ohio judges to help them avoid debtors’ prison practices in their courtrooms. These instructions came as a result of The Outskirts of Hope, and the ACLU of Ohio’s subsequent meetings with Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor on this issue.

Update March 14, 2016: Following our attendance at a White House convening on the criminalization of poverty, the Department of Justice sent a letter to state Chief Justices and state court administrators calling on them to stop unconstitutional policies that have locked low-income people in a cycle of fines, debt and jail.