ACLU accuses Ohio courts of enacting ‘debtors’ prisons’

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(RawStory) -A report by the American Civil Liberties Union has accused courts in Ohio of jailing indigent defendants for not being able to pay court fines, an apparent revival of the 19th century practice of “debtors’ prisons.”

According to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the organization named seven courts in the state in its report (PDF), compiled over the course of 2012.

“Today across Ohio, municipalities routinely imprison those who are unable to pay fines and court costs despite a 1983 United States Supreme Court decision declaring this practice to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution,” the ACLU’s report said.

Courts in Cuyahoga, Erie and Huron counties were singled out in the report as the “worst offenders.” The ACLU said a survey of booking statistics for Huron County Jail revealed that 22 percent of the 1,171 people booked between May and October 2012 were incarcerated for not being able to pay their fines. And municipal courts in Parma and Sandusky counties jailed 45 and 75 people, respectively, between July 15 and August 31, 2012.

“Based on the ACLU of Ohio’s investigation, there is no evidence that any of these people were given hearings to determine whether or not they were financially able to pay their fines, as required by the law,” the report said.

Parma County Municipal Court Judge Deanna O’Donnell said the court had received a letter from the ACLU detailing its findings and that she was contacting the group for more information. She also said the court is treating the letter as “advisory” and not a complaint.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor has also promised to meet with the ACLU to discuss the report.

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