Debtors’ prison sounds like an archaic term — some long abandoned concept from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. Unfortunately, modern day debtors’ prison is alive and well throughout the state of Ohio. Today across Ohio, municipalities routinely imprison those who are unable to pay fines and court costs despite a 1983 United States Supreme Court decision declaring this practice to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
With some variations, this basic approach is followed in many counties.
First, an individual was found guilty of some underlying offense and sentenced to pay fines and court costs by a specified date. If the individual failed to pay these fines and costs, the court issued a summons requiring attendance at a further court hearing.
At these hearings, people facing jail time were informed of the total amount owed and, without any inquiry into their nancial situations, assigned arbitrary monthly payment plans. At no time were they informed of their right to counsel. The court informed them that, if they did not stay current in these payment plans, they would be required to turn themselves into jail on a specific date several months in the future.
On that date, if a person had not paid nor reported to jail, an arrest warrant would be issued. The individual was eventually picked up by police, brought to jail, and incarcerated for ten days with no bond available. After ten days they were typically released, having been charged additional fees for warrants and transportation. For people with no way to pay the fines and costs, the tragic cycle soon repeated.
The failure to pay fines and costs may result in jail time only after the court has held the legally required hearing and determined that the defendant has the financial resources to pay but is willfully refusing to do so.
In Ohio, for example, every court must, at the beginning of any matter, provide each debtor-defendant with a printed document explaining their rights in clear, comprehensible language. This information should also be made available online through the court’s webpage.
All individuals who have been wrongfully incarcerated for failure to pay fines or costs must immediately receive a retroactive credit against their debts for time served. Additional fees imposed as a result of illegal arrests and warrants must also be cancelled.
Being incarcerated for failure to pay fines has devastating effect on peoples’ lives and families. Some of these people have been incarcerated multiple times over the course of many years. The use of debtors’ prison is an outdated and destructive practice that has wreaked havoc upon the lives of thousands of persons.
Courts must properly determine who can afford and are able to pay their criminal fines. The law requires a meaningful hearing into an individual’s nancial resources before the court may impose jail time for failure to pay fines. The use of debtors’ prison is an outdated and destructive practice, and governments need to be held accountable for Constitutional violations just like the rest of us.