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.


Cliff Cannon

@ ClarkeWDawley : Amen

Freedom Writer

Huron County is the armpit of Ohio


Maybe it's the "armpit" of Ohio because of negative attitudes by those such as yourself!? Try to change it in a positive way, by positive actions if you disagree with the way things are! This is a democratic society, if you didn't know that already...


Quote of Mr. Light ""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." I wonder if he is aware of Huron Counties jobless rate? Also, the rate skyrockets if you have any kind of record at all!


Hey Mr. Hambone....if you search monster, careerbuilder, or the sunday editions of the local news publications, re: Cleveland Plain Dealer, Toledo Blade, Columbus Dispatch, Sandusky'll find marketing and sales opps, engineering opps, general labor opps. There are opportunities. Like I was told in's your education, go get your dream!


Mr. Clark- I will agree with you completely. I have stated before, if you actually need a job, you can find one. If all you can find here is minimum wage then you save little by little and move to Cleveland or Columbus or out of state to better yourself. Most of the people that complain about jobs just don't want to get off their a** and do what is needed to improve their situation. You can better yourself, you just have to want it. But most are happy to make excuses to stay on assistants and help from others than going and working hard for a living. They may mess up their manicures or miss a call on their iphone. You go to college to make a dream for yourself, not for someone to give you something BECAUSE you went to college. What is a shame is it isn't just the young ones now a days. Everyone seems to have an excuse for not doing something or for their actions. Shame


you're right @wasp71, Despite the headlines we read everyday, despite the grim reaper apparently being everywhere...know what? We are a free nation. There are ways to go after our dreams! Its not doom and gloom, even though it reads "doom and gloom". We have the power to put on the brakes, turn the car around, and go a different direction. Yes..manicures and IPhones...what a tangled web we ALL weave!


Shame on our police chief for adding to the stereotype and false drama. The more I hear from him, the less I find him worthy of his position. Not long ago, he even said that the school shooting in Newtown was because 'God was taken out of our schools.' That's completely stupid, and I'm starting to wonder if he ever thinks before he speaks.

Cliff Cannon

@ betrump: The not so secret, "secret" of debating. Is that seldom is the other person or sides opinion changed in the debate. The best one can hope for is to enlarge or add to the other person's knowledge.

Then in the quiet moments alone, when retrospection takes place, perhaps the seed from the debate may take root and grow just a pinch

So having met Chief Light in 1967 and always having been very impressed by what a darn good man he truly is. I would if it would help change your opinion come on here and flail away with all sorts of stories of his goodness. Then conclude how blessed we here in Norwalk are to have a man of his caliber leading the police. Yet, you no doubt, would be unfazed

So I'll just tell this story and hope a seed of understanding is planted. After the " Newtown massacre " a memorial service was arranged for Norwalkians at Suhr Park.

The night was perfect for such a memorial ( cold ,windy, rainy) Of course, there was politician's & preachers speaking. And of course, the preacher in particular did the "preacher thing" and talked in circles for far to long.

Yet, the man who spoke best, did so because being neither politician nor preacher, he spoke the truth from his heart. He also, on this dreadful night, set the mood & tone so well, he received an ovation. ( the only speaker to get one, as I recall) That man of course, was Chief Light.

So personally, " the more I hear from him, the more I find him worthy of his position ". ( to paraphrase you) and I can tell you from countless conversations with the man ----he always thinks before he speaks.

In conclusion, 'betrump' I can tell you never met Chief Light because, those who have met him, know what a darn good man he is and I urge you to meet him, so that you too can share our high opinions of him.

P.S. Because " God " was taken out of our schools, homes & lives. In so many cases given the void where the self discipline of " God " used to be, countless tragedy's both heard of as well as unheard of have taken place. Yet, that's another story


@ Cliff Cannon..Re: Dave light. Dave is a solid, fair minded individual full of integrity, and class. Why do I say that? Well, when he was part owner of the barbell club some years ago, pre-police, I witnessed him helping many people who didn't know how to work-out, or were afraid(shy) to ask for assistance. Actually, I couldn't afford my membership one month, and he let me slide until I could...and I was always welcome. One should ever judge a man, lest they know him. Norwalk is a better town because of him. No, this is an unpaid advertisement, to you naysayers.


A great percentage of people you see in court (agreeing to pay their fines in return for being let go) are sporting manicured nails and Iphones! If you have the money to support those such things, and many more, why cant you arrange for payments and MAKE THEM? Most of the offenders would be allowed to pay as little as $5.00 a month! Really? You can afford all the other luxuries, but can't pay $5.00 to keep yourself out of jail? Its a sad world.....these people know the system, and know how to get away with the crimes, and if caught, how to get away with not paying for those crimes. There is no "good" answer.


Ummm, Mr. Clarke? Did you just solve unemployment or do the numbers lie? I always thought numbers didn't lie. Please forgive me for stating facts? I will be honest, I do not know what the answer to the problem is but, we should try to find the answer.


@hambone... I was unaware that I solved anything. Numbers don't lie, or do they...what does come forward to me, is that there are many avenues to change one's life. One must grasp the the open door, and slam shut the past. You're right though..we ALL must wotk to find the answer.

Now The Rest of...

They can't or won't pay the fines, no problem. Forfeit their drivers license, block their license plate renewal, place it on their credit report as an unpaid debt giving them every incentive to pay up. No constitutional issue or expenses to the taxpayers


Good luck finding a job with no car.

Now The Rest of...

Should of thought of that before getting into trouble that caused the fines.


Another excuse to not have to better your situation....poor kid. Get a second hand bicycle.


Perhaps an understanding of Constitutional Law will shed some light on why this is a revolving door problem. We as citizens have rights, not only under the U.S. Constitution, but also our State Constitution, which is supposed to guarantee our rights as provided. Circumventing these provisions is contrary to the protections set up in the Constitution that preserve human rights against forced detention for failure to pay debts. Before a court can incarcerate an individual for failure to pay fines, they must first assess his ability to pay as set out in This may help....(pdf)


The Courts have a lot of choices they can use to make people pay the fines and costs they owe. The problem is that putting them in jail to collect a debt is an unconstitutional choice that our local court has chosen. Liens, attachments, garnishments, etc. These are the legal choices to collect any debt including fines and court costs. No one can put in jail for not paying your credit card debt. Likewise, no one can put in jail if you don't pay fines and court costs. It's really pretty simple to understand.


There was a time in Norwalk when if somebody had a fine and couldn`t pay it they were able to work it off. I remember people raking leaves in parks , picking up trash on the roads and whatever the city needed them to do. It saved a lot of money for the city having all the extra help. I`m sure the city union or somebody like that had issue with it as it was stopped. I know for a fact that in Georgia, cities will put people to work raking leave, picking up trash along the roads or working at the recycle centers to pay their fines. But they don`t have greedy unions in the south either.


Too many offenders these days.
I can remember people being able to sit out their fines in jail for $10 a day.
Who knows how it should be handled.
I don't believe throwing someone in jail when they are trying to pay or can't pay is the answer.
We all have our priority and life changes and well,life happens.
For some with only half a brain that can be challenging.
Although I have a big heart and believe in people and giving them a chance.
That doesn't change the fact that it's still all about the mighty $.
Bottom line...when the student is ready,the teacher will appear.


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


Strictly from a financial stand point, the current "debtor's prison" tactic used in Norwalk wastes more money than it collects. The amount of time by police officers tracking down warrants, the Court's time, and the space wasted in jail for people who simply owe money far outweighs the money collected. Why not make some minimal effort by the Court to collect the money owed so you don't waste too much Court time then turn it over to a collection agency like any other debt? It would be far more cost effective than the current procedure. The police would stop wasting their time pursuing warrants, the Court would save time, and jail space could be used for violent offenders instead of people who simply owe money.


Wow, when I quoted Mr. Light I was in no way trying to say anything bad about him, I actually know him and Clarke the catcher. You are both upstanding citizens or ex in Clarks case, and who in this city has not read Mr. Cannons comments one time or another, haha! I just think when you speak in a public forumn, it should be to help better things!


@hambone...yes, I agree. A public forum is to allow people to share views. As we all know, different people have different takes on situations. We all share our own individual personalities. But, you're right...all comments should hopefully be made to better things, or improve things. I don't know that I'm a catcher though...always played the outfield. Anyway, if everyone pitched in, we could make this world a better place!


They can work off their fines by cleaning up all the trash, and debrie, in the alleys, streets, and ditches in Huron County, Oh please start in Willard since no one really cares . City Council meetings are a joke to say the least