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Cruel Country: Debtors Prisons Are Punishing the Poor Across America

A 19th century tool for instilling fear in the public to pay off debt
 
 
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"In the 1990s, Jack [Dawley's] drug and alcohol addictions led to convictions for domestic violence and driving under the influence, resulting in nearly $1,500 in fines and costs in the Norwalk Municipal Court. Jack was also behind on his child support, which led to an out-of-state jail sentence." After serving three and a half years in Wisconsin, Dawley, now sober for 14 years, is still trying to catch up with the fines he owes, and it has "continue[d] to wreak havoc on his life."

Tricia Metcalf is a mother with sole custody of two teenagers. In 2006, Metcalf "was convicted of passing multiple bad checks. The fines mounted into the thousands. Unable to pay the total amount owed, Tricia entered into a payment plan of $50 per month." Although she's worked temporary jobs, a long-term job has been hard to find. "Whenever Tricia missed a payment, a warrant was issued and she was taken to jail."

The stories of Jack Dawley and Tricia Metcalf are only two of several compelling accounts in the ACLU's new report, The Outskirts of Hope: How Ohio's Debtors' Prisons Are Ruining Lives and Costing Communities.

The jailing of people unable to pay fines and court costs is no longer a relic of the 19th century American judicial system. Debtors' prisons are alive and well in one-third of the states in this country.

In 2011, Think Progress' Marie Diamond wrote: "Federal imprisonment for unpaid debt has been illegal in the U.S. since 1833. It's a practice people associate more with the age of Dickens than modern-day America. But as more Americans struggle to pay their bills in the wake of the recession, collection agencies are using harsher methods to get their money, ushering in the return of debtor's prisons."

In 2010, the ACLU did a study titled In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons, which revealed the use of debtors prison practices in five states, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia and Washington.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson said: "Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope - some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity."

Nearly 50 years after Johnson's address, which launched the "War on Poverty," "poverty in America has not dissipated," the ACLU's report states that "the number of people living in poverty in Ohio grew by 57.7% from 1999 to 2011, with the largest increase coming from suburban counties."

This year's ACLU report - which takes its name from a phrase in Johnson's speech - points out that many poor "Ohioans ... convicted of a criminal or traffic offense and sentenced to pay a fine an affluent defendant may simply pay ... and go on with his or her life [find the fine] unaffordable [launching] 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."

According to the report, Ohio 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."

Debtors' prisons are unconstitutional

If you are thinking that debtors' prisons must be unconstitutional, you are right. The ACLU report points out that the U.S. Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, and Ohio Revised Code "all prohibit debtors' prisons."

"The law requires that, before jailing anyone for unpaid fines, courts must determine whether an individual is too poor to pay. Jailing a person who is unable to pay violates the law, and yet municipal courts and mayors' courts across the state continue this draconian practice."

The phenomenon of jailing people because they are unable to pay their fines and/or court costs isn't limited to Ohio. CBS Money Watch's Alain Sherter recently reported that "Roughly a third of U.S. states today jail people for not paying off their debts, from court-related fines and fees to credit card and car loans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Such practices contravene a 1983 United States Supreme Court ruling that they violate the Constitutions' Equal Protection Clause."

Wreaking havoc on ordinary peoples' lives

Jack Dawley: "You'd go do your ten days, and they'd set you up a court date and give you another 90 days to pay or go back to jail... It was hard for me to obtain work, so I fell back into the cycle of going to jail every three months."

"I tried to pay my fines several times in multiple ways," Tricia Metcalf said. "I had even gone to churches and asked if there was any way they could help. There was nothing I could do. I asked the judge about community service." She even sold personal possessions, including her only mode of transportation to keep up with paying the fines. "Since 2006, Tricia has been incarcerated five times for failure to pay fines," causing major disruptions for her family.

There are several other compelling personal stories in the report.

Perhaps the most irrational aspect of the growing use of debtors' prisons during tough economic times when counties are stretched beyond their financial capabilities, is that they "actually waste taxpayer dollars by arresting and incarcerating people who will simply never be able to pay their fines, which are in any event usually smaller than the amount it costs to arrest and jail them."

The ACLU is calling on the Ohio Supreme Court "to institute administrative rules to ensure that all courts properly determine whether a person can afford to pay her criminal fines, in order to ensure that those who are unable to pay are not incarcerated for these debts."

"....Until the state Supreme Court takes action, thousands of Ohioans will continue to be relegated to the outskirts of hope, where the crime of poverty sentences them to a vicious cycle of incarceration, burdensome fees, and diminishing optimism for a better life. Our constitution - and our conscience - demand that Ohio courts do better."

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement.

 
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