Monday, October 04, 2010

ACLU on "Debtors' Prisons"

Today, the ACLU released "In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons." (Hat tip: Enquirer Politics Blog.) The report looks at policies in Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and Washington and concludes that indigent defendants are being incarcerated because of their inability to pay fines or court costs. Both the US and Ohio Supreme Courts have repeatedly held that such treatment of people who cannot pay is unlawful.

The ACLU's discussion of Ohio begins at page 43 of the report, and Hamilton County is mentioned at page 50. The report says this:
Renowned Cincinnati civil rights attorney Bob Newman notes that, at least in Hamilton County, he is not aware of any individuals who are serving time for nonpayment of fines. This is not because courts strictly follow the constitution and statutes barring the jailing of indigent defendants—it’s because the jails are already overcrowded. Courts simply have no room to incarcerate nonviolent offenders.

It's unclear whether the judgment that our local courts don't really care about the constitution is Bob's or the ACLU's. Either way, it's probably mistaken. Recently, the Hamilton County Public Defender has done an excellent job of educating our judges regarding its clients' constitutional rights in this area. What's more, earlier this year, the municipal court started sending unpaid fines and costs to a collection agency. For the most part, when a defendant fails to pay a fine (even if s/he fails to appear at a "stay-to-pay" date), a warrant no longer issues; instead, the case is "sent to collections." The result will be less crowded dockets and--if Montgomery County's experience is any indicator--increased collection of fines and costs (perhaps proving the conservative meme that the private sector usually does things better than the government).

This is overall an interesting report, and makes some points that should be considered. Of particular concern should be the abuse of the indigent in Ohio's mayor's courts. (At least one local municipality has an ordinance making it a separate crime to fail to pay a fine levied in a criminal case.) But Hamilton County is on the right track, and the report is, perhaps, unfairly critical.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Don't be an idiot or your post will be deleted.