Friday, April 05, 2013

Ohio debtor prisons' re-emergence

An article in the Sandusky Register yesterday morning again brought up the question of "debtors' prisons" still in fact being in existence in the United States, not in name, but rather, in essence, fact, with The American Civil Liberties Associated having asked for action from the Ohio Supreme and appeals courts to stop supposed illegal practices.

In October 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union released a study entitled, 'In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons,' which profiled five states, including Ohio, that imprison people who cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines. As a result of this report and the related media coverage, the ACLU of Ohio began to receive reports from people throughout Ohio who had been ensnared in debtors' prisons. Many of these stories highlighted problems in Huron County, a small, rural county in north central Ohio. This prompted the ACLU of Ohio to launch a full-scale investigation, the results of which have now been released.

"Having found egregious evidence of debtors' prison practices in Huron County in that first study, Ohio's ACLU expanded its investigation to ten other counties across the state: Hamilton, Cuyahoga, Erie, Greene, Montgomery, Muskingum, Richland, Warren, Williams, and Wood counties," the new report states.

"The investigation of Ohio uncovered conclusive evidence of these practices in 7 of the 11 Ohio counties examined, with courts in Huron, Cuyahoga, and Erie counties being among the worst offenders. In the second half of 2012, over 20% of all bookings in the Huron County Jail were related to failure to pay fines. In Cuyahoga County, the Parma Municipal Court jailed at least 45 people for failure to pay fines and costs between July 15 and August 31, 2012. During the same period in Erie County, the Sandusky Municipal Court jailed at least 75 people for similar charges." (Current 'Outskirts of Hope' report )

Articles have appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Dayton Daily News, CBSnews and on the passed two days, with the Dayton Daily News' saying "routinely jailling Ohioans for owing court fines and fees violates the state's constitution and laws, and is against the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, calling on the Ohio Supreme Court to issue administrative rules to require courts to hold hearings to determine whether a defendant is unable to pay fines owed or if they're just unwilling. Even if a defendant is just refusing to pay, he or she is supposed to be credited $50 per day spent in jail against the debt."

The issue had come up nationally last summer with The New York Times carrying an article about indigent and low-income people, "mushrooming of fines and fees levied by money-starved towns across the country and for-profit businesses that administer their system," and the inevitabilities of the three coming together with growing numbers of poor people, ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions. A 2011 Wall Street Journal  had noted, "More than a third of all U.S. states allow borrowers who can't or won't make payments on credit-card or auto loan balances and other bills to be jailed,with judges having signed off on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine counties with a total population of 13.6 million people." ( Prior Post )

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor reportedly responded that the report raises issues that "can and must receive further attention."

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