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Court: Don’t send poor to jail

Tom Jackson • Feb 6, 2014 at 9:50 AM

The Ohio Supreme Court issued new instructions to Ohio judges Wednesday, asking them to be careful they don’t toss Ohioans in jail merely because they can’t pay their fines.

The new “bench cards” — large, laminated cards on a two-sided legal-sized document — spell out the rules for collecting fines and costs from defendants. They apparently were issued to address complaints by the Ohio ACLU.    The advocacy group said many municipal courts in the state, including courts in Sandusky and Norwalk, were running “debtor’s prisons” by jailing defendants for unpaid fines and costs without bothering to find out if the defendants simply didn’t have the money.

Days after the ACLU issued the report in April, Sandusky’s municipal court judge, Erich O’Brien, asked police to stop arresting people for unpaid fines. He agreed to study the court’s handling of the issue, noting he’d worked for Legal Aid and as a public defender and he tried to be sensitive to the problems of the poor.

Norwalk’s former municipal judge, John Ridge, took a different approach, telling the Register through an intermediary that he wouldn’t discuss the issue because he might have to face litigation.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor met with ACLU officials and agreed to tackle the issue. The ACLU report stated courts in seven counties, including Erie and Huron counties, were sending people to jail because they couldn’t pay their fines.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s new guidelines are important in Ohio and even nationally, said Mike Brickner, director of communications and public policy for ACLU of Ohio.

“They are the first Supreme Court to issue a card like this,” Brickner said. “Chief Justice O’Connor deserves all due recognition for taking this issue seriously and addressing it as quickly as she did”

Brickner said the bench cards are being handed out and discussed at a judicial conference in Ohio this week and are being sent out to all state judges.

“Now, judges are on notice what the law is,” he said.

The rules on the new bench card directly address concerns raised by the ACLU. Among the rules the cards list:

•A person may be jailed for willful refusal to pay a fine, if he or she has the ability to pay it.

•Before that person is jailed for nonpayment, a hearing must be held on whether the person had the money.

•The defendants at such a hearing have the right to a lawyer.

•Anyone jailed for failing to pay a fine will get credit on the fine at a rate of $50 a day, and fractions of a day will count.

•An offender cannot be held in contempt of court of failure to pay fines.

“No longer should there be any confusion about the fact that both U.S. Constitution and state law prohibit courts from jailing people for being too poor to pay their fines,” Brickner said. “Courts that are still engaging in debtors prison practices are on notice that they can no longer ignore the Constitution, and if they do so, our state Supreme Court is watching”

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