Poor unfairly jailed for failing to pay fines, report says

Ohio’s chief justice says the issue merits ‘further attention.’

Courts in at least seven counties routinely jail Ohioans for owing court fines and fees, in violation of the state constitution and laws and against a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, according to a new study released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor says the report raises issues that “can and must receive further attention.”

While many defendants can pay their fines and walk away, for Ohio’s poor a fine “is just the beginning of a process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time,” the report says.

The ACLU documented debtors prison practices in Springboro mayor’s court and municipal courts in Hamilton County, Sandusky, Norwalk, Parma, Mansfield and Bryan. Messages left with the courts in Springboro and Hamilton County were not immediately returned.

Other courts, including Moraine mayor’s court, employ policies such as arresting defendants for not showing up for hearings where they’re supposed to explain why they haven’t paid their fines, said Mike Brickner, ACLU of Ohio communications director.

The hearings are sometimes scheduled weekly, increasing the chances that the defendant will eventually miss one and face a bench warrant, he said.

Moraine City Manager David Hicks said he hasn’t seem the report or received any feedback from the ACLU. He added that the court is typically accommodating to defendants who call and ask for a continuance due to schedule conflicts.

The ACLU calls on the Ohio Supreme Court to issue administrative rules to require courts to hold hearings to determine whether a defendant is unable to pay fines owed or if they’re just unwilling. Even if a defendant is just refusing to pay, he or she is supposed to be credited $50 per day spent in jail against the debt.

Jailing people costs between $58 and $65 per night, plus the time spent by officers and clerks to track the person down, arrest them, book them into the jail and file paperwork. Often the costs exceed the debts owed.

“It is not a good deal for the taxpayers. (The defendants) aren’t not paying because they don’t feel like it. They’re not paying because the literally have no money,” Brickner said.

Brickner said it creates a two-tier justice system for those who are able to pay fines and those who can’t.

In March 2011, police stopped Tim Furlong in Warren County for not having a front license plate and cited him for the plate, failing to have a child in a booster seat, driving without a license and having a small amount of marijuana and rolling papers in the car. Furlong, too poor to hire his own lawyer, asked for a court appointed attorney, pleaded guilty and was fined $300 and ordered to pay $75 in court costs.

Two years later, he has been forced to show up in court more than 10 times to explain why he hasn’t paid the fees, jailed three times for a combined total of about three weeks, and charged with more fines, he said. He currently owes $550 and there is a bench warrant out for his arrest, according to Warren County Clerk of Court records.

Furlong, 30, is homeless, jobless and suffers from recurrent mental health issues that have landed him in the hospital. He said he cycles between jail, the hospital and homelessness.

“I’ve just been basically told to pay every time I’ve gone to court. I can barely find enough to eat everyday. I have a hard time doing that,” Furlong said. “To pay $500 — I just can’t do that.”

Chief Justice O’Connor is promising to meet with ACLU of Ohio Executive Director Christine Link as soon as possible to discuss the findings in the report.

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