Debtors’ prison is back


So-called pay-or-stay sentences recall 19th century debtors’ prisons. They are inhumane, illegal, and a waste of taxpayers’ money. Even so, Ohio courts continue to lock up misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford to pay their fines and court costs.

A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “Outskirts of Hope,” concludes that Ohioans are jailed — many without hearings to determine their ability to pay — even when the cost of executing warrants and incarcerating them exceeds their debts. Moreover, the costs to defendants, including loss of jobs and homes, are far higher.

Courts in Cuyahoga, Huron, and Erie counties are among the worst abusers, the report says. Lucas County was not among the 11 counties examined by the study, but that doesn’t mean such practices don’t happen here.

During the second half of last year, more than one in five bookings in the Huron County Jail were related to failure to pay fines. In the Cleveland suburb of Parma, the municipal court jailed at least 45 defendants between July 15 and Aug. 31 last year for failure to pay fines and costs. Sandusky’s municipal court jailed at least 75 people on similar charges.

These sordid practices likely violate the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, and state law. They clearly discriminate against poor defendants, creating a two-tier justice system. Sentencing judges should scorn them.

The ACLU report also found that some courts, as required, credit debtors $50 for each day they serve in jail. Others do not.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court has vowed to look into the matter. She must ensure that Ohio’s municipal and largely unregulated mayors’ courts end the practice.

They should understand that these debts represent civil, not criminal, violations. They must, early in proceedings, determine a defendant’s ability to pay.

Ohio is not the only state that essentially jails people because they’re poor. In a 2010 report, the ACLU found poor defendants jailed at growing and alarming rates around the country for failing to pay legal debts they couldn’t afford.

The growth of pay-or-stay practices — possibly to ease local governments’ growing budget deficits — is especially disturbing 30 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared, in Bearden vs. Georgia, that sentencing courts must review defendants’ ability to pay a fine or restitution before locking them up.

The defiance of that ruling suggests that courts in Ohio and elsewhere continue to violate the Constitution, as well as to mock the ideal of equal protection and a justice system that works for the poor and affluent alike.

More than 175 years after the nation abolished debtors’ prisons, Ohio courts must not perpetuate them with illegal, inhumane, and ineffective practices.