Norwalk "debtors' prison" gets attention of ACLU

Huron County on list of offenders jailing poor for failing to pay fines
Cary Ashby
Apr 5, 2013

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.

Comments

Now The Rest of...

They have the money for the booze and drugs but not to pay the fines for the results. Yet another reason that ACLU=All Criminals Love Us.

indytrucker

What is this country coming to. The criminals have more rights than the law abiding citizen.

swiss cheese kat's picture
swiss cheese kat

It's not a crime to owe money.

tell it how it is

Unless if you owe the money for a crime..
then yes, it IS a crime. You don't just pay with "time" for being a worthless member of society.

schafe

Judge Ridge always gives defendants the opportunity to make payments on their fines/costs/restitution based on their ability to pay. If they fail to make payments, a warrant is issued. What else would the ACLU, and apparently the Reflector, want to be done? If the Reflector's alleged court reporter paid any real attention to the courts, he could report authoritatively on Norwalk Municipal Court's practices. And the alleged court reporter would also know how to get ahold of Judge Ridge for comment.

Snoozer

Norwalk police chief Light said warrant arrests are limited to "serious offenders," such as ones charged with felonies, domestic violence, assaults and other violent crimes.
So does that mean people who get served a warrant for not filing city income tax deemed Serious offenders?
I get it now! I know a couple people who said they owed money to the courts for misdemeanor charges and all of a sudden they owe nothing now? Maybe more investigating in this matter needs to be done!

swiss family

What????Judge Ridge being investigated because of something that doesn't seem right in his Judgement???? Wow I am shocked and saddened...I always thought that he was so fair, and beyond being involved in some kind of mis-judgement.....it will take a while for me to understand this and accept it...Is he still double dipping???

hit the road jack

You missed it people it says its the "RACIAL JUSTICE" program,kinda like Obies social justice program! I don't know what they want you to do? if Obie doesn't bail them out leave them go for free or just let the taxpayer(victim) take and call police when they get done or what.

four

All penalties are too strong for criminals according to the ACLU.

haterwalkme

why don't they go back to letting them work their fines of?

Whiskey Tango F...

Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Personal attacks (including: name calling, presumption of guilt or guilt by association, insensitivity, or picking fights).

jack langhals

Hey,Whiskey who could you call a name here that didn't fit?

ferball14

You can't make me work, it's my right not to want to work. I have rights here in murica....that would just be unconstitutional to make me work against my will!! How dare you suggest that, you think the ACLU is on our butts now. ....HA

jack langhals

You can't drink large sodas,eat too much,smoke but you can have abortions because that is your right.

ClarkeWDawley

Jack, with all do respect, abortions are legal...Roe Vs Wade...its pro-choice. Of course it could be possibly overturned, then we could have thousands of more unwanted, unexpected, or..ooops...uncared for children who end up jobless, and thus can't pay their over due court fines...and end up in jail!!?? Why? Because irresponsible kids are having kids they don't want, or were a "mistake". Maybe they were high on something...ooops again, they can't pass a drug test, can't get a job..and can't pay their fines. So...where do we start?

jack langhals

It would take 12 supervisors like JFS probably !

ferball14

Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Remarks that discriminate based on age, race, religion, disability, etc..

former local

Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Remarks that discriminate based on age, race, religion, disability, etc..

whats up hometown

It's pretty sad this joke of a county will go after people that owe a few dollars and lock them up which ends up costing everyone but the person that owes thanks Huron county I'm glad you have our backs But a 14 year old girl can have a 30 + yr old man force himself on her and this wonderful county does jack sh** about it thanks again Huron county you showed my kids it pays to be a criminal

ClarkeWDawley

Hey "Whats Up hometown", I can't comment on what I don't know about your proclamation concerning the alledged incident you mentioned. But I will say, Huron County is a great place to be. As the saying goes...if you can't do the time, don't do the crime. That goes for those, and that includes myself, if you have made arrangements with the court regarding payments for a conviction. Then pay it, or communicate with them otherwise. What do you expect the Judge to do????? Ok, you won't pay, you're upset if you're in contempt, you're upset if you're in jail...ok, you're free. Get a grip...pay up on what you agreed to, or deal with the consequences!

Grandpa04

Sad thing is we pay weather they getoff or not. either the court app. attorney, or the jail stay that usually cost taxpayers more than they owe!!

Really are you ...

People can not pay their fines because jobs, family wage jobs, are moving out of the area with nothing replacing them. Those people could fall into the poor me roll, and hit the bottle and drugs to ease the pain of being nothing in life. They do not earn an honest wage anymore so they go and steal to support their habit. At least Mexico and China can not take our fast food chains. Could you imagine pulling up to the drive through window, place your order, and then they say: That will be $20., your food should be here in 3 days, could you please pull up to the curb? O' and would you like to donate to the Bring Our jobs Back to America fund? They should tax the heck out of the companies that move their manufacturing operations to foreign shores, that bring those goods back into the states to be sold to US citizens (the legal ones, anyways). These company heads are maximizing their profits, avoiding to pay their fair share of taxes, seems like they have forgotten about where they came from and how they got started. If we are serious about changing these company guidelines and rules that they have to abide by, something has to change. Lets all go down to Washington DC, become lobbyists and line congress men's wallets with all kinds of money so they will pull the strings that close the loop holes that profits,extremely profits, the people at the top of the company. Throwing people in jail from the bottom up is plain stupid. Go after the big cats at the top, whoever they may be,they are the ones who are to blame. I am not prejudice, look at the house and senate or the president they can be republicans, democrats, or independents. Throw all the guilty parties in jail for neglecting their responsibilities. For not standing up and keeping their promises they made when ran for office. But instead they cowardly bow down to the "All Mighty Dollar." What are the members of our Supreme Court doing about this injustice? If I remember right, before a bill can go into affect the top three governing bodies can veto or amend them. Executive (president), legislative(Congress) or the Judicial (Supreme Court) I have only heard bickering between the President and Congress, Where has the members of the Supreme Court been? Are they sitting this one out? Rewrite the taxation codes because they are outdated. Throwing someone in jail because there are not able to obtain a family wage job around here, so they can honestly earn extra spending money, and then hold that extra spending money to pay fines. Honestly earned wages are nowhere near the ever increasing rate of inflation. Geez! Wake up America!

hit the road jack

When their were jobs in Huron County they wouldn't show up for work and now they cry there are no jobs,you cannot have it both ways,you have to show a little responsibility and show up for work EVERY day! some people I can have sympathy for but a lot of you people can just eat $hit sandwiches everyday and it will NOT bother me at all,how many people posted on here 2-3 years ago that they lost their job and they could get more in unemployment than they could get at a new job so they said the hell with it I'm taking a long paid vacation? well,now its time to get a job and quit pissing and moaning!

FTFOI

Before voting on a ballot be sure to fully understand who you are voting for. Do not base your vote off of the T.V. adds. Do some homework. Our elected officers are there because majority voted for them. The majority voted simply by what they hear from others and T.V..
Second. Raise your children with values and respect. They do grow up and use what they learned from those around them. Your children and my children are our future wheather you like it or not. Knowing that makes you really think.

jas

Some of you people need to actually read the Constitution some time. It actually says in black and white that no one shall be imprisoned for debt. The constitutional procedure is to reduce the unpaid fines or court costs to a civil judgment against the person and then collect it like any other debt with liens, attachments, garnishments, etc. Imprisonment is specifically prohibited by the Constitution. You can't go to jail if don't pay your credit card bill and shouldn't be going to jail if you don't pay your bill for fines or court costs.

It's very simple but some courts including the Norwalk Municipal Court have been violating the Constitution for years. It seems like the only way to stop this repeated constitutional violation would be to file a Federal lawsuit against the public officials who violate a person's constitutional rights by imprisoning them for debt. Let's see how long they keep violating the Constitution when they are facing a substantial money judgment against them personally. Perhaps they will stop then.

And yes, I am a lawyer so I know what I'm talking about.

onegirlarmy

I agree.
Not all who have fines are criminal.
I know people who were arrested for failure to pay fines,lost their job while already struggling to meet other obligations.
IMO...it's a crock!
Doesn't make much sense to me but nor does not trying to pay.
Sometimes I joke and say....
"Here we are all equally worthless!"...lol

FTFOI

Too bad our Constitution is out dated. When it was written life was simple. If you wanted to eat you had to work. You had no other choice.
Times have changed an WE THE PEOPLE have not spoken up loudly enough. We allow ourselves to be hushed. Our elected officials ignore us and take money to for their own agenda.

It is time WE THE PEOPLE speak up. Before you cast your next ballot find out more about who you are voting for.

ClarkeWDawley

Let me get this straight. First of all, we all have some type of financial obligations. Basically, secured or unsecured debt. They both carry consequences if not paid. So, if you have run afoul of the law somewhere along the line, don't have the immediate resources to pay, and the court is lenient(nice) enough to grant you payments over time, then somehow you have to pay those. If you have a job, and you can't get there to pay on time, we would all have a responsibility to call the court and make arrangement adjustments. You can't just not pay, not communicate with the courts, and then scream "victim" when you're confronted. In other words..break the law..agree to payments..not pay them...it goes on for months, maybe years..then you're the "victim" when it catches up to you!? Ok, I'll not pay on my mortgage loan, credit cards, medical bills, insurance, taxes..and when it all comes crashing down, hey...you can't touch me, I'm the "victim". I'm not supporting the incarceration of those paying court imposed fines, but...
they have agreed to the terms of their fines, and have a responsibility to at least communicate with the courts, try everything possible, pay anything, stay in touch...you just can't not pay without some kind of consequences! Be accountable, at least for yourself.

been_there_done_that

Agree!!

WASP71

I believe in that also! The only issue that I would have with any of this is if you have a job, they throw you in jail then you CAN'T pay because you lose your job. I say if your not paying because of your own fault-which it is or you wouldn't get fined- then they need to do the garnishment, leins, etc. If you have a don't have job then put you beside the road picking trash up to pay for them. Putting you in jail is rediculous because it just costs us taxpayers more, then you go back to court, fine you some more on top of your fines you already have. Put your a** out in July by the road or in January and let's see if we have a lot of repeat offenders. My opinion.

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