Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Ohio courts shouldn’t bring back debtors’ prisons

When defendants can’t pay court costs , some judges jail them; these practices are inhumane, discriminatory, and a waste of tax money


Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor has met with the activists about the issue of locking up people who are too poor to pay court costs.


You probably won’t feel sorry for Jack Dawley of Norwalk — and he doesn’t want you to.

Over a down-and-out decade, the former construction worker abused drugs such as crack cocaine, drank too much, and racked up nearly $1,500 in fines stemming from misdemeanor charges, including disorderly conduct, unlawfully transporting a firearm, and drunken driving.

“I made some bad decisions and take full responsibility for them,’’ Mr. Dawley, 55, who has been clean and sober for 14 years, told me last week. “But a judge is supposed to know the law. I just want them to do the right thing.”

Unfortunately, some Ohio judges haven’t done right by Mr. Dawley, or many other poor people in similar cases. They’ve locked up defendants with low-level offenses who can’t afford to pay their fines and court costs.

So-called pay-or-stay sentences recall 19th century debtors’ prisons. Some courts order defendants to pay costs and fines, without determining their ability to pay. When defendants can’t pay, judges jail them instead.

These practices are not only inhumane and discriminatory but also illegal and a waste of taxpayers’ money. They violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the Ohio Constitution, and state law.

Taxpayers shell out more, too, to cover the costs of unnecessary incarceration and of executing warrants. A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, “The Outskirts of Hope,” estimates that counties sometimes paid thousands of dollars to lock up people who were too poor to pay court fines and costs — usually far more than the amount they owed.

When Mr. Dawley worked, he paid $20 a month on the fines he accumulated from 1989 to 1999. But a herniated disc, arthritis, and other medical problems often kept him off the job.

When he couldn’t work, he couldn’t pay the court. Without determining Mr. Dawley’s ability to pay, the Norwalk Municipal Court locked him up for three days in 2007, three days in 2010, and 10 days in May of last year for nonpayment of fines.

What’s more, the 10 days he served last year cost him a job he had just found as a retail clerk in Sandusky.

And for what? When he lost his job, Mr. Dawley couldn’t pay the court anyway. Moreover, locking him up and executing the warrants cost the county more than $2,000. Today, he is still unemployed and looking for work.

The ACLU report, released last month, found hundreds of similar cases around the state. Courts in Cuyahoga, Huron, and Erie counties were among the worst abusers, the report states.

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 of last year for failure to pay fines and costs. Sandusky’s municipal court jailed at least 75 people for similar reasons.

Lucas was not among the 11 counties examined by the ACLU study, but that doesn’t mean pay-or-stay sentences don’t happen here.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court has met with the ACLU about the matter, acknowledging that its report “identified some issues that warrant further examination.” Supreme Court spokesman Chris Davey told me last week that more than 220 people had also written to the court.

No one knows how widespread pay-or-stay sentences are in Ohio. Justice O’Connor noted that “some of the courts mentioned in the report have challenged the characterizations.”

Fair enough, but it’s her job to ensure that Ohio’s municipal and largely unregulated mayors’ courts end the practice and fairly determine a defendant’s ability to pay. She should sanction, and hold accountable, any judge who doesn’t.

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

The United States abolished debtors’ prisons more than 175 years ago. Thirty years ago, 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.

Judges should know the law better than anyone else.

It’s not a crime in Ohio to be poor — at least not yet. People such as Mr. Dawley don’t want sympathy or special treatment. They want Ohio courts to handle their cases in a legal and constitutional manner.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Jeff Gerritt is deputy editorial page editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6467. Follow him on twitter @jeffgerritt.

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