Poor Ohioans Jailed For Non-Payment Of Court Fines

The Ohio ACLU accuses some municipal and mayor's courts of not following state law by denying defendants' right to a hearing to determine whether they're financially able to pay fines.(Photo: flickr: aging accozzaglia)
The Ohio ACLU accuses some municipal and mayor's courts of not following state law by denying defendants' right to a hearing to determine whether they're financially able to pay fines.(Photo: flickr: aging accozzaglia)

The Ohio ACLU said some Ohioans are being wrongfully jailed because they’re too poor to pay court-imposed fines. WOSU reports seven courts received letters Thursday detailing the allegations.

An Ohio ACLU investigation uncovered seven municipal or mayor’s courts that are not following state law when they jail defendants for failing to pay court-imposed fines without first holding a hearing to determine whether they’re indigent.

Spokesman Mike Brickner, who suspects this is a statewide issue, said the ACLU observed several hearings in Norwalk Municipal Court in which defendants were held in contempt of court for failing to pay fines.

“The judge never asked whether they could afford to pay it,” Brickner said. “Many people said they couldn’t afford to pay it. And the answer was always, ‘well, it doesn’t matter. You either have to pay or you go to jail.’”

State law also requires courts to apply a $50 daily credit toward jailed defendants’ unpaid fees. According to the ACLU, some courts are issuing credits below the state-required daily minimum, while others failing to apply them at all.

And Brickner said the investigation found many defendants accumulated additional fees – contempt of court fees, arrest warrant fees – that were tacked on to the fines they already could not pay.

“And so what we’re seeing is, that these people then have this constant threat of incarceration,” Brickner said.

Brickner said the ACLU is calling on the Ohio Supreme Court to issue guidelines.

“To make sure that all of the courts and mayor’s courts across the state know the rules, and that those judges and those courts that continue to flout the law are held accountable for doing so.”

Mansfield Municipal Court was among the seven courts to receive a letter about the allegations. Judge Jerry Ault (pronounced “alt”) said they’re looking into the allegations, but Ault declined to comment any further.

Comments
  • bilbo

    We establish the concept of fines as a means of collecting revenue with the thought that they will make this a priority. When priorities become food with spiraling inflation (that supposedly doesn’t exist according the gov’t) and stagnant wages, then your forced to pick food. That system needs to be revamped and the jails need to be cut back so we’re not making the easy choice of incarceration into a well established machine-like system.