CREDIT: Henry Nicholls’ book “The Forest of Dean”/Wikimedia Commons
To reverse an Ohio trend in which courts are sentencing individuals who can’t afford fees and court costs to probation or jail, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed this week to instruct all of its judges that they cannot jail defendants for failure to pay fees and court costs, nor for their inability to afford a criminal fine.
An April American Civil Liberties Union report documented in Ohio what has become an increasing trend around the country — the revival of so-called debtors’ prisons in which those who cannot pay fines face incarceration. The ACLU found that judges were illegally imposing jail time on the poor in two ways: First, they were threatening criminal punishment for those who don’t pay a non-criminal fee, such as court costs, a civil fine, or other fees. Second, they were failing to assess whether an individual ordered to pay a criminal fine has the ability to pay that fine before sentencing them to jail time — a violation of a 30-year-old U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
A new “bench card” that the Ohio Supreme Court will disseminate to all judges explains that imposing either one of these sentences is illegal. “An offender CANNOT be held in contempt of court for refusal to pay fines,” the memo states. “Accordingly, unpaid fines and/or court costs may neither be a condition of probation, nor grounds for an extension or violation of probation.”
In many places, this trend has been significantly exacerbated by private firms that handle probation while charging all sorts of monthly fees with the threat of jail time. Probation firms sell their services by offering a cost-free mechanism of collections; they make all their money by extra fees charged directly to the individuals who owe fines — often those least able to afford them. But the ACLU’s reports on debtors’ prisons in Ohio and elsewhere have pointed out that the cost of jail far exceeds the cost of an unpaid fine.