The ACLU of Ohio has a new report called The Outskirts of Hope, about the phenomenon of debtors’ prisons — throwing people in jail for being unable to pay fines and court costs. The title of the report is taken from a speech by President Lyndon Baines Johnson:
“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”
The report’s introduction says:
The plight of the poor becomes both more difficult and more obvious when they have contact with the criminal justice system, where people with fewer resources often receive correspondingly worse treatment. Those in poverty cannot afford private counsel to negotiate favorable sentences. Instead, they face criminal charges with representation from overworked and underresourced public defenders. When facing only misdemeanor charges, they may have no attorneys at all. Regardless of whether or not charges could result in jail time, defendants often come away with a mountain of harsh fines and fees. For people who live paycheck to paycheck, it may be nearly impossible to pay them.
The resurgence of contemporary debtors’ prisons sits squarely at this intersection of poverty and criminal justice. While this term conjures up images of Victorian England, the research and personal stories in this report illustrate that debtors’ prisons remain all too common in 21st century Ohio. In towns across the state, thousands of people face the looming specter of incarceration every day, simply because they are poor.
Taking care of a fine is straightforward for some Ohioans — having been convicted of a criminal or traffic offense and sentenced to pay a fine, an affluent defendant may simply pay it and go on with his or her life. For Ohio’s poor and working poor, by contrast, an unaffordable fine is just the beginning of a protracted process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time. The stark reality is that, in 2013, Ohioans are being repeatedly jailed simply for being too poor to pay fines.
As I’ve said many times, our entire law enforcement system is broken from top to bottom. It is rigged against poor and minority citizens in every imaginable way and should be a huge public disgrace.