A review of reports published over the last few years shows poor and lower-income Americans are increasingly being jailed for being unable to pay debts and fines “more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts,” as the ACLU notes.
According to a report by the group titled “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons” that was published in October 2010, some state and local governments “have turned aggressively to using the threat and reality of imprisonment to squeeze revenue out of the poorest defendants who appear in their courts. These modern-day debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and resources, undermine our criminal justice system, are racially skewed, and create a two-tiered system of justice.”
In 2011, a series of Wall Street Journal interviews with 20 judges across the country concluded the cases of borrowers who were threatened with arrest in their courts had “surged since the financial crisis began.” The newspaper reported that some who were jailed had “no idea before being locked up that they were sued to collect an outstanding debt” because of “sloppy, incomplete or even false documentation.”
This month, another ACLU report, titled “The Outskirts of Hope: How Ohio’s Debtors’ Prisons Are Ruining Lives and Costing Communities,” found that many municipalities in Ohio “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.” The poor were disproportionately affected by this trend compared with their more affluent fellow citizens, who could simply pay their fines and get on with life.
In contrast, Ohio’s poor and working poor often find themselves at 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.”
Some of the Ohio report’s other findings appear below.
• Despite clear constitutional and legislative prohibitions, debtors’ prison practices are alive and well throughout Ohio. An investigation by the ACLU of Ohio uncovered conclusive evidence of these practices in 7 of the 11 Ohio counties examined.
• Courts in Huron, Cuyahoga, and Erie counties are 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.
• Based on the ACLU of Ohio’s investigation, there is no evidence that any of these people were given hearings to determine whether or not they were financially able to pay their fines, as required by the law.