Court: Don’t send poor to jail

“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”
Tom Jackson
Feb 6, 2014

 

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”

Comments

enough of the bs

Again the justice system sending a clear message, crime DOES pay... These poor CRIMINALS agreed to a payment plan through the court to be released on the charges they were sent to court for. Now they fail to pay the amount they agreed upon for the fines they were sentenced to but somehow now we need to feel sorry they cannot properly budget the welfare check to pay the fines on a payment plan they already said they would pay? I'm so tired of the excuses, be a productive member of society and stop breaking the laws and you will not have a problem, pretty simple!!!

bama

Can't afford to pay but collecting large tax returns for having more kids than they can take care of. Go to their homes, look at their possessions. I am willing to bet they have a TV larger than a 25 inch and lots and lots of games and the newest game console to play on those large TV sets. But I only guess it's fair for those to work to pay their fines while other sit on their A**es and collect from the government and not pay what they owe for things they shouldn't have been doing in the 1st place. Bet they had the money to go out and party which is probably what got them in trouble in the 1st place but what do I know.

Elwood

Instead of levying a fine that you know they can not pay why not sentence them to community service?
Cleaning a park or roadside ditch, shoveling the snow for the elderly,etc.

Come on judges make them do something, just letting them walk away is not the answer.
Make them take responsibility for their actions.

Fordman

Seems as if it doesn't pay to pay your bills. Great credit yet can't refi, and if I didn't pay my bills I could file bankruptcym, keep my house go on welfare, go out do something stupid and not go to jail or pay my fines. Hmmm, I really do think that being a law abiding citizen isn't all it's cracked up to be, considering they will probably raise our taxes to pay their fines now.

Julie R.

Brickner said the judges are now on notice what the law is ........

Shouldn't judges already know what the law is?

Babo

Yes they should, especially on something that is fundamental constitutional law. I do not understand why people do not file grievances on these judges for violating constitutional rights and wasting taxpayer's resources in the process.

IMO, The Ohio Supreme Court should of on its own initiative filed grievances on the judges named by the ACLU as violating citizens rights.

mikesee

Moral to this story: Crime does pay. Don't pay your fines and challenge them to throw you in jail.

In America one no longer has to have personal responsibility!

Steve P

"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." If you check the sheriffs department jail roster today you find 14 people where at least one charge is listed as back fines, all from Sandusky Municipal Court, a few of them that's the only charge, none from any other area court.

grandmasgirl

This is exactly why people are fed up with the "Poor". Why should a judge even take the time to hear a case. Anyone can be poor. All you have to do is sit back and let others take care of you. And they will, cause the government says they have to. And America goes further down the slippery slope.

The Big Dog's back

So all the right wingnuts want to ignore the Constitution when it's something they want. Who knew?

JACKEL

Where is The Right Wing involved here.? The ACLU is a Lib Socialist Anti Christian Dumacrat Org. just remember that last four letters or Dumacrats, spells Rats and the last four of Republicans, spells I Can !

The Big Dog's back

“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”

Steve P

piddle did you notice both judges mentioned in the article are Democrats and the judge who is stopping it from occurring is from the Republican dominated supreme court.

The Big Dog's back

And your point pooh? I didn't know there was a Dem version and a Repub version of the Constitution.

Donegan

The Dem constitution seems to say it can ignore the actual constitution. Get it right Dog, If you cared any bit for the constitution you would not support this president But as we can all see you do support him and Not the constitution. If your god said kill them with drones you would be fine with it.

Steve P

piddle you are the one that brought politics into the subject, as usual. I just pointed out it was two local democrats accused of violating the constitution and a Republican Chief Justice and Republican dominated supreme court defending it, off you puppy meds again?

SamAdams

I've actually READ the Constitution. And it doesn't say that people who can't afford to pay fines can't be fined, or that poor people can't go to jail if they commit a crime. So I'm going to ask you a very simple question that requires a straightforward answer: Where, exactly, in the Constitution does it say that poor people can't be punished if they commit a crime? Please let me know if you need a reference link so that you can actually review the real thing. You might actually learn something if you do, you know...

SamAdams

So basically, as long as I don't have a lot of money, I can do pretty much whatever I want and get rewarded for it (or at least don't get punished). Nice. Way to encourage the criminal element, ACLU and State of Ohio!

OH-IO

Wow. Don't be sore losers. If you want to get the constitution or state law change then petition to do so. We benefit from state and federal laws more times than not. Prisons are filling up everyday so someone is doing time. I don't care to not work and be broke before the 15th so I can stay home and watch TV. That's a sad life. I'll keep my day job. It's like a rich man complaining about the poor getting a meal. Don't be a Ebenezer Scrooge.

Babo

This issue is best approached analytically and not with emotion. These are Municipal Courts jailing people for failing to pay fines or costs associated with misdemeanor cases. These are not typically serious crimes.

What does it cost taxpayers to jail a person for a day? Probably at least $50.00, the payment the Court is willing to credit fines. Most people will gladly pay a fine instead of jail time, because the personal costs in terms of loss of income from a job, and loss of freedom are far greater than $50.00 a day.

So these non payment cases arise from people who probably genuinely cannot pay their fines. Why would you want to compound their misery by jailing them and costing taxpayers even more money?

If they can pay, (and the Court is required to hold a hearing to determine whether they can pay, are hiding assets, or can truly not pay) then the Court has the right to jail them if they refuse. If they really can't pay; are not we as a society better off allowing them to work it off in the form of community service if able rather than jailing them? Of course they have the option after hearing of serving time at $50.00 per day towards their fines, but taxpayers would be better off if they were made to perform community service instead of jail time

Steve P

They don't have the money to pay their fines, but they have the money to by the booze and drugs to get into the trouble? The vast majority of these offenses are alcohol or drug related. As for community service, imagine the quality of work you will receive from these violators and the costs of supervising them to do what usually is busy work.