Debtors' Prison Deemed Unconstitutional by Ohio Supreme Court


When one hears the term debtor’s prison, an image of one of Dickens’ characters might come to mind. A poor soul who has been wrongfully accused and unable to pay the fines wages against them. The imprisonment will lead to a decline in their social and physical health and in general, the ordeal would end tragically. Although this might sound like a fictional story set again Victorian Industrialization, such a story too often played out in present times in America.

Under Ohio state law and The U.S. Constitution’s 1983 ruling, it is illegal for individuals to be imprisoned for their inability to pay court fines and costs. Courts must hold “an economic ability to pay hearing” in order to determine whether a citizen has the funds needed to repay the charges. Only willful neglect in payment, meaning the person has money and refuses to pay, can lead to jail time. For those who don’t have the money, courts can offer alternative forms of payment.

Despite these rules, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio found that many municipal courts failed to adhere to state law and were imprisoning individuals who could not afford to pay their court debts. Their report titled, “The Outskirts of Hope,” surveyed 11 Ohio counties’ practice of debtor’s penalties and found 7 counties not abiding by the law. ACLU found that 20% of all prisoners booked in Huron County Jail were because they failed to pay court fines. They then went on to highlight the negative impact debtor’s prisons have on the state and the citizens.

Some examples ACLU gave are:

  • The money it takes to execute and charge a citizen sometimes are more than the defendant actually owes.
  • Ohioans are imprisoned for debts that are a few hundred dollars, while it costs the state between $58-$65 a night to fund an incarcerated individual.
  • Debtor’s prison has a long-term negative affect on a charged Ohioan’s mental, social, and physical health.

With such facts presented to them, the Ohio Supreme Court took action in February 2015. They sent a new bench card listing the rules of imprisoning a debtor of the state’s judges. The bench card offers alternative to jail time for Ohioans, which include community service, a payment plan, or having a driver’s license suspended until charges have been cleared. Though the problem may not be completely eradicated, the acknowledgement and education about the topic will hopefully reduce wrongful imprisonment for citizens unable to pay court fines.

At Koffel Brininger Nesbitt, we believe it is important for judges and citizens to know and abide by the law. We believe being well informed both of the law and of consequences will help alleviate wrongful incarceration. No one should have to suffer injustice because of ignorance.