America's debtors' prisons: Poor people in Ohio being locked up for failure to pay debts, ACLU says

Published: Wednesday, April 10 2013 6:59 a.m. MDT

Courts in Ohio are illegally throwing poor people in jail for being unable to pay their debts, a new report by the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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Courts in Ohio are illegally throwing poor people in jail for being unable to pay their debts, a new report by the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says.

"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 Ohio Constitution also explicitly prohibits debtors’ prisons," the ACLU report says. "Likewise, the Ohio Revised Code and numerous decisions of the Ohio Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals forbid the incarceration of poor citizens for failure to pay court debt."

The ACLU also contends the practice is a waste of taxpayer money. According to the ACLU, it costs the state more to put people in jail than it does to simply pay their debts.

"Ohioans are being jailed for debts as small as a few hundred dollars. The cost of arresting, processing and jailing low-income Ohioans, by contrast, multiplies rapidly," the ACLU claims. "It costs between $58 and $65 per night to incarcerate an individual in county jail and approximately $400 dollars to fully execute a warrant."

Ohio isn't the only state where debtors' prisons are being used, according to multiple news reports.

In 2011 NPR reported the story of Robin Sanders, an Illinois woman who was jailed for failure to pay a medical bill. "She was driving home when an officer pulled her over for having a loud muffler," NPR reported. "But instead of sending her off with a warning, the officer arrested Sanders, and she was taken right to jail. 'That’s when I found out [that] I had a warrant for failure to appear in Macoupin County. And I didn’t know what it was about.'" She owed $730 on a medical bill. She says she didn’t even know a collection agency had filed a lawsuit against her. Sanders spent four days in jail waiting for her father to raise $500 for her bail. That money was then turned over to the collection agency, according to NPR.

An article in The Wall Street Journal sheds some light on the scope of the problem. "Judges have signed off on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine counties with a total population of 13.6 million people, according to a tally by The Wall Street Journal of filings in those counties," the Journal reported. "Nationwide figures aren't known because many courts don't keep track of warrants by alleged offense. In interviews, 20 judges across the nation said the number of borrowers threatened with arrest in their courtrooms has surged since the financial crisis began."

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