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Ohio Supreme Court warns judges to end 'debtors' prisons'

The Supreme Court of Ohio [official website] on Wednesday distributed a warning to all of the state's judges to end the policy of imprisoning people who are unable to pay court fines, a practice deemed unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court more than 30 years ago. The bench card, which is the first of its kind in this country, gives legal alternatives [ACLU report] to debtors' prisons, such as forfeiting one's driver's license, and describes procedures for determining one's ability to pay fines. This action comes as a result from an American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio [advocacy website] report, The Outskirts of Hope [text, PDF], which documented the practice in seven counties and showed how imprisonment caused hardship for both debtors and Ohio taxpayers. Courts are required by law to hold hearings in order to establish a defendant's financial status before jailing them for failure to pay court fines and prohibits the jailing of a defendant if he or she is unable to pay.

In April the ACLU of Ohio released a report [JURIST report] urging the Ohio Supreme Court to bring an end to the state's practice of jailing people who cannot pay their court fines. The brief reflected the findings of an ACLU investigation launched in 2012. In 2010, the ACLU released a report entitled "In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons" [text, PDF] profiling five states, including Ohio, which participate in the practice of so-called "debtors' prisons." Under this system, individuals who fail to pay their sentenced fines and court costs are assigned a monthly payment plan. If he or she does not make these payments, an arrest warrant will be issued, and the individual will be incarcerated for 10 days without bond.

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