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ACLU Challenges Secret Debtors' Prison System in Ohio

The American Civil Liberties Union is battling the modern day debtors' prison system. It is a secret system, nestled within criminal justice, and it happens to be profitable for private contractors who benefit when poor people don't pay fines and end up with jail time.

This week, the Ohio chapter of the ACLU filed a suit against Benton County, accusing the locality of illegally incarcerating people who cannot pay their court fines. Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller confirmed that the practice happens to The Seattle Times, saying he has spoken up against it.

A Disconcertingly Common Practice

The practice is common around the country and turns relatively simple problems into impossible ones for the poor. For example, it can transform a minor infraction like failure to pay a traffic ticket into a legal nightmare with long lasting and serious negative consequences.

On the surface, the issue seems simple. If people don't want problems, they should pay their fines. End of story. But in fact, there is much more to it.

We all pay for incarceration somewhere with our state and local taxes, meaning we are all responsible on some level. So let's try to understand what is happening.

Incarcerating the Indigent Illegally

According to the ACLU, the increasing incarceration of the indigent for failure to pay fines is due to dwindling budgets. State and local courts try to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of even very low-level crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision.

Apart from it being absurd to pay for the privilege of punishment, this also puts the indigent in a pickle. Operating in deficits, courts use aggressive collection methods to demand unpaid fines and fees from the nation's least affluent, then levy more fines for failing to pay.

People who did not pay their tickets end up with more and more fines until they find themselves in jail, where they get more court orders to pay. It's a vicious cycle that works for the private contractors who get paid to run many of the jails in counties around the country. And it puts the poor in an even worse situation.

Legally Speaking

Technically, failure to pay fines is violation of a court order and certainly is punishable. But the critical point being ignored in Benton and elsewhere is that the failure to pay must be willful, a deliberate decision to not pay rather than a failure to pay because circumstances don't allow it.

If a person cannot pay the fines and the failure to pay was not willful, courts cannot punish. The ACLU is fighting courts that have ordered jail and arrest for people who fall behind on their payments without holding hearings to determine ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment such as community service.

Dekalb County Settlement Instructive

In January, the Georgia chapter of the ACLU filed a similar suit in DeKalb County on behalf of a young man who was jailed for failing to pay court fines and probation fees stemming from a traffic ticket. The county settled the matter within two months and has instituted practices that provide the poor with information about the law on ability to pay and alternatives to jail.

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