Ohio Is Illegally Throwing Poor People in Jail For Owing Money

The Americans Civil Liberties Union on Friday revealed that courts in Ohio are illegally throwing poor people in jail for being unable to pay off a debt.


In a report titled, “The Outskirts of Hope,” (PDF) the ACLU shines a light on a harrowing “debtors’ prison” system in Ohio — one that violates both the United States’ and the Ohio constitution. Ohioans are being jailed for “as small as a few hundred dollars,” despite the constitutional violation, and the economic evidence that it costs the state more to pay for their jail sentence than the amount of the debt.

In its report, the ACLU details the stories of several people sent to debtors’ prison. Jack Dawley owed $1,500 in “fines and costs in the Norwalk Municipal Court,” and was behind on child support payments, leading the Ohio courts to send him to prison in Wisconsin for 3 and a half years. He still struggles with trying to repay the fines. Another victim of the system, single mother Tricia Metcalf, was taken to jail each and every time she wasn’t able to make her $50-a-month payments on fines for writing bad checks. Megan Sharp, whose husband is currently in jail on overdue fines, was unable to pay $300 in fines for driving on a suspended license and went to jail for 10 days. When she got out, she owed $200 more on top of the original amount. Both she and her husband are unemployed.

The AP has a round up of the charges that the ACLU levels against Ohio, writ large:

— In the second half of last year, more than one in every five of all bookings in the Huron County jail — originating from Norwalk Municipal Court cases — involved a failure to pay fines.

— In suburban Cleveland, Parma Municipal Court jailed at least 45 defendants for failure to pay fines and costs between July 15 and August 31, 2012.

— During the same period, Sandusky Municipal Court jailed at least 75 people for similar charges.

Court officials have pledged to look into the accusations.

In 2011, ThinkProgress reported on how the deep recession and loss of employment had led to areturn of debtor’s prisons. People were reportedly put in jail for something as small as missing a single furniture payment.

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