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ACLU: Debtors' prisons are alive and well in Midwest

(Stock Photo by Giorgio Fochesato/Vetta/Getty Images)

Being too poor to pay off an Ohio speeding ticket could land you in prison, according to that state's branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. On Thursday, the Ohio ACLU released a new report [PDF] alleging that at least seven of the state's counties are still engaged in "debtors' prison practices."

While patently refusing to pay fines related to misdemeanor charges is illegal, courts are legally forbidden under state and constitutional law from imprisoning people for lacking the financial resources to pay up. Debtors' prisons—jails for those found guilty of being too poor to pay their debts—have been outlawed nationwide since 1833. Yet the ACLU says some Ohio counties have been imprisoning the poor due to unpaid debts as a matter of routine.

"We expected it to be pretty intense, but what we found were pretty shocking numbers," said ACLU of Ohio communications director Mike Brickner.

For example, "over 20% of all bookings in the Huron County Jail were related to failure to pay fines," according to the report. Furthermore, "there is no evidence that any of these people were given hearings to determine whether or not they were financially able to pay their fines, as required by the law."

The report includes several interviews with people who claim to have been victims of Ohio's makeshift debtors' prison system, such as unemployed Ohio local Megan Sharp. After being fined roughly $300 for driving with a suspended license, Sharp was incarcerated for ten days when she fell behind on her payments.

"The Norwalk Municipal Court added the cost of issuing the warrant and the expense of transporting her to jail to her debt," according to the report. "The $300 she owed had now grown to over $500 with additional costs and fees."

ACLU of Ohio found that many local courts, said Brickner, "functioned as a bad credit card agency."

"One court had these giant fines posted, and if you were a person who could not afford to pay your fine all in one payment, they had this payment plan system set up," he said. The payment plan included interest. In another case, the court had a payment counselor who debtors could meet with "to figure out how they were going to pay off this fine."

The proliferation of such harsh financial penalties may have something to do with local budget shortfalls. In many municipalities, the ACLU found that "there were certain times of the year that certain courts incarcerated more people, and sometimes that correlated with their fiscal year," said Brickner.

But the ACLU also found that incarcerating debtors of the state actually costs more in the long run. Though, Sharp was only ever able to pay Huron County $50, her incarceration cost the county $980.

This Wednesday, ACLU of Ohio sent a letter to the state's Supreme Court asking for action to prevent further incarcerations like Sharp's. Shortly before the release of the report, they received a response from Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor.

"While not able to discuss with specificity the cases you mention in your letter, you do cite a matter that can and must receive further attention," wrote O'Connor. She said her assistant would arrange a meeting with ACLU representatives.

Ohio is not the only state where modern day debtors' prisons proliferate. In July 2012, the New York Times reported that the practice of sending debtors' to jail was on the rise in Alabama, where private debt collectors "charge public authorities nothing and make their money by adding fees onto the bills of the defendants." A 2010 report from the ACLU and NYU's Brennan Center for Justice found other examples of debtors' prisons in Louisiana, Michigan, Georgia and Washington State.

"Unfortunately, this is an issue that affects people who live in poverty, I think, all across the country," said Brickner.