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Debtors’ Prisons in Ohio

The ACLU of Ohio has a new report called The Outskirts of Hope, about the phenomenon of debtors’ prisons — throwing people in jail for being unable to pay fines and court costs. The title of the report is taken from a speech by President Lyndon Baines Johnson:

“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

The report’s introduction says:

The plight of the poor becomes both more difficult and more obvious when they have contact with the criminal justice system, where people with fewer resources often receive correspondingly worse treatment. Those in poverty cannot afford private counsel to negotiate favorable sentences. Instead, they face criminal charges with representation from overworked and underresourced public defenders. When facing only misdemeanor charges, they may have no attorneys at all. Regardless of whether or not charges could result in jail time, defendants often come away with a mountain of harsh fines and fees. For people who live paycheck to paycheck, it may be nearly impossible to pay them.

The resurgence of contemporary debtors’ prisons sits squarely at this intersection of poverty and criminal justice. While this term conjures up images of Victorian England, the research and personal stories in this report illustrate that debtors’ prisons remain all too common in 21st century Ohio. In towns across the state, thousands of people face the looming specter of incarceration every day, simply because they are poor.

Taking care of a fine is straightforward for some Ohioans — having been convicted of a criminal or traffic offense and sentenced to pay a fine, an affluent defendant may simply pay it and go on with his or her life. For Ohio’s poor and working poor, by contrast, an unaffordable fine is just the beginning of a protracted process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time. The stark reality is that, in 2013, Ohioans are being repeatedly jailed simply for being too poor to pay fines.

As I’ve said many times, our entire law enforcement system is broken from top to bottom. It is rigged against poor and minority citizens in every imaginable way and should be a huge public disgrace.

Comments

  1. says

    “At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

    “Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

    “Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

    “And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

    “They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

    “The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

    “Both very busy, sir.”

    “Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

  2. says

    Now, look, if they didn’t want to become mired in a Kafkaesque nightmare of inescapable punishment, they should’ve hired a good attorney or paid those fines with the money they didn’t have in the first place.
    That’s just common sense.

  3. says

    It is not only a disgrace, it’s stupid. How much does it cost for the judicial system to go through all those contempt charges and arrest warrants and other proceedings? And jail time is even worse, with average spending on incarceration at about $30,000 per year it doesn’t take long to greatly exceed the amout that is sought to be recovered.

  4. says

    @John Pieret #3 – You don’t understand: the poor deserve such treatment. If they were worthy of respect, they wouldn’t be poor, would they. That was the attitude under the UK’s New Poor Law of 1834 and it remains the attitude in much of the United States today, especially among the Republican aristocracy.

  5. says

    John Pieret, no price is too high when meting out justice. What, are you going to let vagrants just sit there, vagranting their depraved vagrancy in public? And don’t get me started on the itinerants and their deviant itinerancy! Why, such things could lead to jaywalkery, marihuana and double-parking!

  6. kantalope says

    No no nO NO – you have to punish the poor more or they don’t have any incentive to become rich and you just coddle them into their dependent lifestyles which in turn makes them susceptible to influence peddling by corrupt foreign born politicians. Haven’t you been paying attention.

    http://zapatopi.net/afdb/build.html

  7. dingojack says

    In a few years it’ll look like this. Ah America, the land of human progress, welcome to the 18th century!
    Dingo

  8. mucklededun says

    I was going to mention Dickens, but I see that the thread has already been Pecksniffed.

  9. Ben P says

    Hold on … I’m waiting for the PDF to download, but the post itself equates two very different things.

    A debtors prison historically was the ability for a private party to seek a judicial sentence for failure to pay debts. IE you owe me money, you don’t pay, I can go to Court and swear out a warrant for your arrest, and you can be put in jail if you don’t pay me. They did not refer to being sentenced to jail time for committing criminal offenses.

    On the other hand, it is exceedingly common for almost all misdemeanor criminal statutes to prescribe penalties that read like “A defendant convicted under subsection A shall be fined not more than $500 dollars and shall serve not more than 30 days in jail.”

    It is very common and absolutely constitutional for the Court to treat these sorts of statutes as an either or. If you’re convicted or plead guilty, you can pay a fine of $250 or you can take 3 days in prison. Moreover, to my mind that’s not terribly offensive. A lot of things shouldn’t necessarily be criminal, but the alternative is to say “ok, you don’t have the money to pay a fine? you get a free pass.”

    Reading the PDF now, what they allege happens in Ohio is actually unconstitutional, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a debtors prison. Rather it seems to be the consequences of a stupidly low level judicial system where judges who are not trained in the law (or constitutional rights apparently) can preside over traffic courts.

    Ohio has a criminal statute specifically for the “willful failure to pay fines.” This is constitutional only if there is a finding that the defendant has the ability to pay and has refused. I.e. if the defendant is indigent he can’t constitutionally be put in prison for failing to pay.

    The ACLU study uncovers cases both of charging defendants with failure to pay without ever taking evidence or making that finding, and worse, finding defendants in contempt for failing to pay and putting them in jail for content. Both of these are unconstitutional.

    It also appears that the court didn’t distinguish between court costs and criminal fines which is another important jurisdiction. Court costs are civil debts and can’t be treated like criminal fines even if you pay them to the same place. So that’s also wrong.

    not really offensive for the judge to treat these statutes as an either or, you pay a fine, or you serve an

  10. Ben P says

    And what’s really offensive to me, is that I handle indigency findings almost every day in court. it literally takes about two minutes to establish it. It’s kind of offensive to me professionally that there’s not a minimum level of care there.

    Call the witness to the stand, Are you employed? What do you earn? What do you pay in rent? Utilities? Food? Do you have a checking account or any money in a bank that you could use to hire a lawyer?

  11. freemage says

    I’ve been slowly turning over the idea of a sliding-scale for fines based on income, so that the richer you are (and thus, the more you’ve benefited from living in an allegedly civil society). the more beholden you are to not violating its laws. Tie it to a defendant’s gross income.

  12. D. C. Sessions says

    One item not mentioned is that of charging the prisoners for the priviledge of being incarcerated. Which, since they can’t work while locked up, leads to additional charges and more time.

  13. says

    This happened to a friend of mine. She got a misdemeanor theft charge for allegedly steallign $20. The evidence amounted to someone said they had $20, then couldn’t find it and she was in the house at the time. Since she wasn’t facign jail, she didn’t get an attorney and got convicted, which mad her unemployable. She ended up dying at 29 from something that probably would not have been an issue if she were working and had health insurance.

  14. uzza says

    @freemage #12: The minor traffic violation I was ticketed for cost me 4.0% of my monthly income. The way I figure it, for the same ticket Mitt Romney would pay 0.0002%. To get the same deterrent effect that these laws are supposed to achieve, shouldn’t he pay $72,000, the same fine as me, four per cent?
    As it is, criminal penalties for me, coz I’m poor, are 1440 times what they are for him.

  15. paul says

    It is not only a disgrace, it’s stupid. How much does it cost for the judicial system to go through all those contempt charges and arrest warrants and other proceedings? And jail time is even worse, with average spending on incarceration at about $30,000 per year it doesn’t take long to greatly exceed the amout that is sought to be recovered.

    Which is why, in some jurisdictions, the correctional system attempts to recover the cost of incarceration from the convict as well.

  16. says

    uzza “@freemage #12: The minor traffic violation I was ticketed for cost me 4.0% of my monthly income. The way I figure it, for the same ticket Mitt Romney would pay 0.0002%.”
    Now you’re just being ridiculous. Romney doesn’t get tickets. Tickets are for little people.
    At most, he buys a minority stake in the ticket via leveraged buyout, gets massive loans for that ticket, forces the ticket to pay him a bonus, then takes it public, leaving the shattered, debt-laden remains of the ticket to be stripped and sold off by the banks that formed the majority shareholders behind him.

  17. gopiballava says

    @Paul:

    Which is why, in some jurisdictions, the correctional system attempts to recover the cost of incarceration from the convict as well.

    Well, information retrieval *is* expensive.

    I agree with the sentiment that fines should be based on income. The purpose of the fine is dissuasion. The secretary at one office I worked at who never filled a gas tank 100% because she was short of cash should not face the same level of fine that I face.

    I was up in Northern New Mexico and saw a disabled parking space with a warning, ~$80 fine. I laughed and commented that that was about a day’s parking in San Francisco. I think the fine out here is more like $300 pr $400.

  18. khms says

    I’ve been slowly turning over the idea of a sliding-scale for fines based on income, so that the richer you are (and thus, the more you’ve benefited from living in an allegedly civil society). the more beholden you are to not violating its laws. Tie it to a defendant’s gross income.

    That’s what we do here in Germany once it rises above the level of traffic violations. Quoting Wikipedia:

    In Deutschland ist der Tagessatz für Geldstrafen in § 40 StGB geregelt. Es sind mindestens 5 und, sofern nicht im Gesetz anders vermerkt, höchstens 360 Tagessätze zu verhängen. Die Höhe liegt zwischen 1 Euro und 30.000 Euro. In § 43 StGB ist die Ersatzfreiheitsstrafe festgelegt, wobei ein Tagessatz einem Tag Freiheitsstrafe entspricht. Die Tagessätze werden zumeist bei 1 von 30 (1/30 oder 3,33 %) des Nettomonatseinkommens angesetzt.

    Shortly, where applicable, one day of jail is the equivalent of one “daily rate”, which is approximately wht you earn in one day, and usually the limits are from 5 to 360 days, and from €1 to €30,000.

    So, being completely broke doesn’t mean you pay nothing, and being obscenely rich doesn’t mean you solve all public budgetary problems, but otherwise it’s very proportional.

    Oh, and it’s tied to what’s left of your income after taxes.

  19. arakasi says

    Finland does the sliding scale for fines also.

    About 10 years back, Nokia’s director was fined 116,000 Euros for speeding. The fines are linked to a certain number of days of income – in this case, 14 days.

  20. matty1 says

    Sliding scales are a definite improvement over fixed penalties. One problem is that even the same percentage of income hurts the poor more since the less money you have the higher the percentage of it that is spent on necessities. So even if Mitt Romney paid 4% of his monthly income as a fine it is less likely for him than for Uzza that loosing 4% will lead to his going without something he would have bought.

  21. cry4turtles says

    Legalize marijuana, make it retroactive, and a portion of the incarcerated will walk out.

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