Supreme court issues instructions to end debtors prisons

Judges across the state received new directions from the Ohio Supreme Court that will help end the practice of sending people to jail when they owe court fines and are too poor to pay them, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

The instructions come after Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor reviewed an April report by the ACLU of Ohio that found at least seven counties routinely jail Ohioans for owing court fines and fees, in violation of the state constitution and laws and against a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The Ohio Supreme Court issued a new “bench card” to all judges statewide that lists legal alternatives to jail and outlines the procedure for determining someone’s ability to pay fines.

The ACLU said Ohio’s new bench card is the first of its kind in the country.

“Debtors’ prisons are an outdated relic of the past, but have thrived in Ohio.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,” said ACLU of Ohio Director of Communications and Public Policy Mike Brickner in a written statement. “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.”

Defendants often are ordered to pay court costs, fees and restitution, which are civil matters, not criminal, according to the bench card. So unpaid court costs, fees and restitution can only be collected through civil judgments.

Fines are another matter. No one may be held in contempt of court for refusal to pay fines, according to the bench card. Instead, the court is obligated to hold a hearing to determine the ability of the defendant to pay: those with the financial wherewithal must pay or possibly face jail time; those too poor to pay face other options such as community service or driver’s license forfeiture.

Defendants are entitled to counsel for the financial hearings, the bench card says. Anyone sent to jail for non-payment of fines is to be credited $50 toward the unpaid balance for each day spent behind bars, the bench card says.

In its April 2013 report the ALCU of Ohio documented debtors prison practices in Springboro mayor’s court and municipal courts in Hamilton County, Sandusky, Norwalk, Parma, Mansfield and Bryan. The practice is not only unconstitutional, it’s not a wise use of tax dollars since jailing people costs between $58 and $65 per night, plus the time spent by officers to track them down, arrest and book them, the ACLU argued.

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