Norwalk "debtors' prison" gets attention of ACLU

Cary Ashby • Apr 5, 2013 at 11:10 PM

Slightly more than 20 percent of the people booked into the Huron County Jail over a five-month period last year were there because they failed to pay their fines or court costs.

The results of an investigation by the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) charges Huron County, specifically Norwalk Municipal Court, with being one of 11 counties jailing people for being too poor to pay their legal fines.

"We started looking at this issue about a year ago," said Jocelyn Rosnick, an ACLU policy researcher and post-graduate legal fellow. "For about eight months, we've been doing intense research."

The ACLU investigation, which covered 11 counties, looked at Huron County bookings from May through the end of October 2012. Rosnick said the research shows "strong evidence of debtors' prisoners practice" in seven of those counties -- including Huron, Erie, Richland and Sandusky counties.

"It's definitely a statewide phenomenon; it's not just one region," she added.

Of the 1,171 bookings in Huron County, 259 were for failing to pay their fines or costs in Norwalk Municipal Court, Rosnick said. That averages out to one out of every five prisoners or 22 percent.

"Supreme Court precedent and Ohio law make clear that local courts and jails should not function as debtors' prisons," said Carl Takei, staff attorney at the ACLU national prison project, in a prepared statement.

"Yet many mayors' courts and some municipal courts jail people without making any attempt whatsoever to determine whether they can afford to pay their fines," Takei said.

Norwalk Municipal Court Judge John Ridge couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

The ACLU, after receiving complaints from a "handful" of counties, took random samplings from other "counties we haven't heard from," Rosnick said. She stressed that with the ACLU being a "small, non-profit" organization, there was only time to "heavily look" at 11 counties and the ACLU didn't or couldn't obtain information from other courts due to the availability of their records, or lack thereof.

'What binds' courts, cops

Courts are breaking the law by holding defendants in contempt of court for failing to pay fines without proper notice or allowing an attorney to be present, according to the ACLU report. Also, the investigation indicates warrants are being issued for people who fail to show up and pay their fines and jailing defendants who are too poor to pay.

As of Thursday, Norwalk Municipal Court records indicate there were no outstanding warrants for failing to pay their fines or costs. Related statistics for 2012 weren't available at press time.

Norwalk Police Chief Dave Light was asked if his department is too aggressive in making fines-related warrants. Police have made general warrant arrests one of the department's highest priorities for several years in a row.

"(We're) not aggressive enough," Light said.

If suspects are wanted on a warrant, the chief said, "we're going to pick them up."

When people pay their fines related to a warrant, Light said authorities immediately recall the warrant from the LEADS database "so we don't have a false arrest type (of) situation."

"There are strict guidelines and policies on that," he said.

Since 2008, Norwalk police have been picking up suspects arrested on warrants in adjoining counties.

For years before that, Light said officers would "go all over Ohio to arrest people."

"We've stopped picking those people up," he said. "We don't have the manpower to pick them up anymore."

Now, Light said warrant arrests are limited to "serious offenders," such as ones charged with felonies, domestic violence, assaults and other violent crimes.

What Light said "binds the hands of law enforcement and courts" is when defendants are indigent and can't afford to pay their fines and costs. When prisoners are jailed, they must be given financial credit each day they are behind bars, he said.

"And most criminals are indigent because they refuse to work anyway," the chief added.

Light pointed out the irony of criminals being "healthy enough" to break into someone's vehicle or home or they have enough money to buy drugs, but they often don't seek employment.

"Being poor is not a crime in this country," said Rachel Goodman, staff attorney at the ACLU racial justice program, in a prepared statement.

"Incarcerating people who cannot afford to pay fines is both unconstitutional and cruel -- it takes a tremendous toll on precisely those families already struggling the most."

More ACLU stats

The ACLU investigation of Erie County Jail records covered a 45-day period starting July 15. Rosnick said 75 people were booked for failing to pay their fines during that time frame, making an average of one prisoner per day.

"So it was a little lower than Huron County," she said.

In Richland County, Rosnick said there were few prisoners being jailed, but they were staying longer than in Huron or Erie counties -- 30 days on average.

In suburban Cleveland, Parma Municipal Court jailed at least 45 defendants for failure to pay fines and costs between July 15 and Aug, 31, according to the ACLU report. Sandusky Municipal Court, during the same period, jailed at least 75 people.

"The use of debtors' prison is an outdated and destructive practice that has wreaked havoc upon the lives of those profiled in this report and thousands of others throughout Ohio," according to the report.

Court costs should be recovered through civil lawsuits, not jail time, the report said.

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, of the Ohio Supreme Court, in a letter Wednesday to the ACLU, promised to review the group's findings.

"You do cite a matter that can and must receive further attention," she wrote.

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