Widespread, illegal debtors' prisons in Ohio

A new ACLU report called The Outskirts of Hope (PDF) documents the rise of illegal debtors prisons in Ohio. A majority of municipal and mayors' courts (an unregulated and rare system of courts only permitted in two states) surveyed by the ACLU routinely imprison people for their inability to pay fines, a practice banned in both the US and state constitution. 20 percent of the bookings in the Huron County Jail are "related to failure to pay fines."

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.

The U.S. Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, and Ohio Revised Code all prohibit debtors’ prisons. The law requires that, before jailing anyone for unpaid fines, courts must determine whether an individual is too poor to pay. Jailing a person who is unable to pay violates the law, and yet municipal courts and mayors’ courts across the state continue this draconian practice. Moreover, debtors’ prisons actually waste taxpayer dollars by arresting and incarcerating people who will simply never be able to pay their fines, which are in any event usually smaller than the amount it costs to arrest and jail them.

The report documents heartbreaking cases, like Samantha Reed and John Bundren, a couple with a nine-month-old who were both ordered to pay fines they can't afford. John diverts whatever seasonal/part time wages he earns to Samantha's fines so she can look after their baby, while he goes to jail for ten-day stretches for failure to make payments. They are effectively indigent, but are not given access to counsel when they appear in court over their debts.

(via Reddit)


  1. but what the hell i don’t even are you sane?!?!

    This happens EVERYWHERE in America!

    What are you talking about “imprison people for their inability to pay fines” is illegal?????

    This is common practice! 
    You don’t pay fines, they put out a warrant and slap a charge on you, then you get thrown in jail! If you fail to pay fines repeatedly you go straight to prison!

    1.  The linked report is perfectly clear about what it means. In principle, you can be jailed for willfully refusing to pay fines, but not simply for being unable to afford them. This seems like an important distinction to me.

      1. There are plenty of people who are jailed for being unable to afford fines, as they simply charge those people with fine evasion anyways.

        If you can’t afford the fines, you can’t afford a lawyer to contest the charges and present evidence for you!

        That is what I am referring to!

      1. I was going to bring up Texas. Well… because I live here. It’s not like this is unique to Ohio. Add the complications of immigration status and this becomes very dangerous, a big source of broken families too.

    2. Should read all of the responses before responding but are you referring to the practice of a judge offering you the choice to pay a fine in lieu of serving jail time? $1,000 fine or 24hrs in county lockup? Your choice. Or the use of bail bondsmen? You get out on bail but if you don’t make your court hearings the bondsmen will pick you up so that they don’t lose their money. Just about all of these instances are from committed crimes. They don’t occur because you are unable to pay parking tickets. They’ll take your car if you can’t pay a file folder of tickets, but they won’t put you in jail.

  2. Yeah. With all the rest of the bullshit that’s been going on on this country, I figured it was only a matter of time before debtors prisons made a comeback.  We have privately run prisons, and they need more business.  So, there you go.

    1. my buddy’s step-aunt makes $73/hour on the internet. She has been out of a job for seven months but last month her check was $12386 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on  Fab99.c­om

    1. Is that completely irrelevant, or am I just clueless?  Also, I pray the ACLU can do some good.  This story is bad – but even worse when the picture includes for-profit prisons.

      1. All prisons are for-profit.

        Prisons are paid on average anywhere from 10,000-40,000 per inmate, per year, depending on the state and the contract.

        These contracts are highly monopolized as these private prisons are contracted with their state and local government, meanwhile the money itself has very little oversight as the prisons are private.

        This has encouraged prison companies to lobby for harsher and stricter punishments for as many crimes as possible, as each inmate is a cash cow they can milk for tax-dollars.

        This is the cause for 65-year punishments for victim-less computer based or drug based offenses.

        1. Maybe all prisons in the USA are for-profit.  In most other countries, the very notion of a “prison company” would be a horrifying abomination.

        2.  No again. Not ALL prisons in the US are run as private, for-profit businesses.  Many (most?) are still run by the federal government, states or counties. 

          1. Yes, but the prison guards’ unions are a powerful lobby with a similar interest in increasing incarceration.

          2. Prison guard unions are doing that? I don’t believe that.

            It’s more reasonable to consider that the prison guard unions are just one of the larger reasons why the companies are lobbying for more time to milk tax-money, to satisfy their own greed after satisfying the union’s stomach.

          3. You can go ahead and not believe it if you want warp, but you would be wrong.  Unions look out for union members and nothing else.  They are not charitable organizations interested in the greater good.  They act exactly like any other corporation, only they answer to union members instead of shareholders   This is okay.  That is what a union should be doing, but this is also why you can look at a union and question if what it is spewing is actually a good thing.
            Need proof unions want to see Americans imprisoned so that they can grow the ranks?  Check the link.


          4. antinous, upon further research, it seems the prison guards’ union is merely one of the most powerful lobbying groups.  I couldn’t find out which was the most powerful.  But there is a consensus that it is primarily responsible for increased incarceration.




      2. Collapse Is that completely irrelevant, or am I just clueless?

        If you accept the government’s position that anybody who does not pay taxes, even when they have no money to do so, is a “tax protester” then it’s irrelevant (this is how the government labels them).  If you believe that somebody who has become broke, say through medical bills, should not be imprisoned for not paying the government what it says they owe, then it seems entirely relevant.

        1. I have worked for the IRS, and you are completely wrong.  There is a huge difference between filing a frivolous return – this is how the government actually labels them – and being insolvent.  They have many ways to work with taxpayers who want to pay but can’t; but not when you start negotiating with the middle finger.

          Very very few Americans get to April 15 with a tax bill.  The vast majority have proper withholding and get refunds.  A small number do not, for a variety of reasons, Even in this case, you’ve had four months to scrounge up your tax money, and if that is impossible you can get a payment plan.

          And in the very very rare case where you owe a lot and have no income – really none, not just hiding it in the Cayman Islands – then the collections department can mark your file “cannot collect,” and leave you alone until you find work.

          1. And if you completely ignore  the people who don’t have a prior payment plan and thus do not qualify for another one, who have an income but have massive bills (e.g. medical, farm inheritance, unexpected business expenses in the next quarter, etc.), or who might choose not to live in poverty (and I mean switching the family to beans and rice, not just giving up luxuries) to pay a tax bill, then it all sounds completely reasonable, right? 

            When there is a $0 bank account balance, every cent coming in is spoken for, and yet 20% of yearly income is ‘owed’, it makes no difference if there are 4 months to ‘scrounge up’ the payment.  If it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist.  This goes doubly for those just getting by in high cost-of-living areas. I know, they should just move out and leave those areas to the affluent.

            But that’s not a defense for not imprisoning those people, is it?  It must be nice being a well-paid staffer on the prosecutorial side, and having not experienced the ugliness first-hand.  Even if the person chooses to declare bankruptcy, the tax ‘debt’ is not discharged and their house will be seized, even if it’s underwater.  And should somebody dare say that the system is unfair that somebody should be in this position to fund a corrupt, wasteful, and immoral government, that’s just giving society “the middle finger”, right?  Sell your house, close your business, and put your kids on welfare to make the tax bill, so you can be a ‘good citizen’.

            The 20%’ers may now safely return to ignoring the injustice perpetrated against the lower middle class.

          2. you’ve had four months to scrounge up your tax money

            Not this year when Congress was several months late in coming to an agreement and some tax rules weren’t available until March.

  3. Yeah, well… Our Ohio (mostly Republican) legislature has been in contempt of both our state supreme court and state constitution for 10+ years over the matter of public school funding. Short version:

    Parents: The Ohio constitution says that all children must have an *equal* education, period. Not some word like “equal” but not that. Paying for schools with property taxes doesn’t do that.

    Supreme Court: We agree. The current method of funding public schools is unconstitutional. Legislature? You must fix this.

    Legislature: No. It’s a political fight we can’t win.

    Supreme Court: Legislature… C’mon, now. You have to, or we’ll hold you all in contempt.

    Legislature: …..

    Supreme Court: OK. We hold the entire Ohio State Legislature in contempt.


    Supreme Court: Isn’t there supposed to be a thunderclap or something? Wailing? Gnashing of teeth? Begging for forgiveness?


    Supreme Court: If you don’t respond, we’ll hold you in… DOUBLE SECRET CONTEMPT!!!


    Supreme Court: Oh, fuck it. Never mind.

    1. There might actually be a way around this one.

      Contact the FBI, try to convince them to investigate every member of the Ohio General Assembly for violating 18 USC §242.

      Maximum penalty is only a year, though, unless death results, or the act involves kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt, or an attempt to kill.

      Edit: Hmm, that might only apply to race or alien status. You might get them to have to spend effort fighting legal charges for gerrymandering under that, though.

  4. Ohio is an odd place.  I have a friend with a son who had an automobile accident there: his car was the only one involved, he wasn’t injured (he’d fallen asleep at the wheel while driving home from work) and there was minor public property damage (a concrete highway lane divider).  Ohio cops arrested the son, took him to the station and did a blood test for a potential OVI violation.  He had smoked some weed three days before, and it still showed up in his system.  When my friend first told me this story, I called bullshit on it (thinking the kid had gotten baked shortly before or while driving) and did some research.  Yep, sure enough, in OH a OVI is 2 ng/ml.  And in some folks, that much THC can still be in their system for up to two weeks after having smoked.  The very idea of getting busted for OVI (the weed equivalent of DWI or DUI, apparently) when you smoked weed two to three days (or MORE) prior to the bust is absolutely insane.

    PS- I don’t drink or do drugs of any kind, so I don’t have a dog in this fight.  The law just seems wrong to me, is all…

      1.  I asked my friend.  Apparently, minor damage to a concrete highway divider doesn’t necessarily mean minor damage to a vehicle: there was extensive damage to the car itself.  And he’s thinking a passerby saw what happened (AS it happened) and phoned the cops, since they got there pretty quick for 2am or so in the morning.

  5. ‘Are there no prisons?”

    ‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the  pen again.’And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are  they still in operation?’

    ‘Both very busy, sir.’

    ‘Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’

    1. I wonder if prisons where government run in that time and place.


      Did “A Christmas Carol” happen in the UK or the USA?

    2. You stopped before the pithiest part of Dickens’ exchange… 

      “I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge.  “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

      “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

      “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

    1. Only because the rich and the state have melded into an abomination not unlike a undead flesh-golem.

  6. Incentive enough for these “judges” (non-lawyers) to make right is having their asses hauled to federal court for civil rights violations of the accused.

    Especially on the following counts (from the article):
      ++ US Supreme Court Bearden v. Georgia (1983)
      ++ Ohio State Constitution Article I, Section 15
      ++ Ohio Revised Code Section 2947.14
      ++ Ohio Revised Code Section 2974.14 (E)  (Failure to credit $50/day on imposed incarceration as a result of “willful non-payment of fines and fees.”)

  7. Another great Republican idea!
     People like me are moving away from this party. Like termites, the regressive s have eaten through this once great party. It is fast becoming a shadow of its past.

  8. Being a republican today is simply embarrassing……!
    Has anybody ever stopped to think about the net negative effect of the GOP propaganda machine? It’s a terrible force. It creates great harm because it upsets many people who are not equipped to analyze the misrepresentation of facts and distortions routinely espoused as great Party declarations.
    Nobody wants to put Republican extremists into power. The last thing we need is for a group of radicals to turn our great country into the “The Hunger Games”.

    1. You mean where the poor are forced to entertain the rich with their struggles to survive while they sit back and enjoy the fruits of the poor’s labor?
      Too late.


      Has anybody ever stopped to think about the net negative effect of the GOP propaganda machine?

      Uh, yeah.  Back in the 90’s.  It’s how I simultaneously became politically aware and a liberal.

  9. Reminds me of those Judges who kept sending teens away to private facilities, even after the abuse was proven time and time again and low and behold it turned out they were getting kickbacks…

        1. Happened just last year in Pennsylvania.  That’s the neighbor I was talking about.

  10. You know, I think I might’ve just figured out a workaround for this, for the people affected. (I don’t think they should HAVE to have a workaround, I think the system should be non-fucked, but if it is fucked, and they are powerless… working around it is the only option they’ve got.)

    Most of them don’t have steady employment, and very little tying them to Ohio specifically.

    So, there’s a few options here, if they’ve got friends that are willing to help out (because most don’t have driver’s licenses).

    The first is, get a ride to Pennsylvania or New York. Drop across the border (or at the first town or city). Proceed to use the assistance programs available in those states. I don’t know if there are any federal laws providing for the extradition of a person for failing to pay fines, but if there aren’t, then it’d require those states voluntarily extraditing them to Ohio. And, that’s assuming that an extradition would even be attempted, I don’t believe a municipal court has jurisdiction to do it themselves, it’s just the state level that can actually do it.

    The second is a hell of a longshot, because it’s a method specifically excluded for cases of arrival from the United States (but, the wording is such that it doesn’t consider the US being the actual country that someone is trying to be a refugee from, so it might work – worst case is you’d get deported back to the US, I think), but get into Canada, then make a refugee claim as a person in need of protection due to being subjected to a risk of cruel and unusual punishment. If it weren’t for the US exception, that one might actually be solid.

    1.  “Most of them don’t have steady employment, and very little tying them to Ohio specifically.”
      When you are poor/unemployed the most important part of your life may be your family and friends. Cutting your roots and moving out of state may or may not be a good idea, but it’s not one that should be taken lightly.

      1. That I’ll grant. (Although, I wasn’t that bad off, and most of my friends were (and are) from the internets, but I was for a few months prepared to move almost anywhere in the country on 2 weeks notice, to get a job.)

  11. You can bash Ohio all you want, but it will still be round on both sides, and hi in the middle.

  12. weird, I’m just at the end of Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name and I see this post.

    1. And it’s right there in the US Constitution, no slavery except when someone’s duly convicted of a crime. It never addresses what kind of crimes should be allowed for that purpose, although the other amendments do address the “duly” part. 

  13. Ohio is so fucking strange, and once you get to my area–Cleveland–you really start to have the wheels fall off.
    The whole “Education paid for by property taxes, so the rich kids get great schools and score higher on tests which mean they get more money from the state, to be greater and greater–meanwhile the completely publicly funded and just barely scraping by kids in the city get worse and worse scores until they are shut down for failure to pass… or worse yet, they just keep passing kids who shouldn’t be passed to get funding.” infuriates me to no end.
    But there is literally nothing you can do about it. It comes up every single year, and it always just kind of dies like AndyHavens said already. The issue is that the people who benefit from this don’t want it changed and they are the richest group so they can afford to throw money at the problem so that it never goes away. The poorest people who would benefit from this the most can’t get away from their 3 jobs to come and protest. And the schools don’t want to stop getting boatloads of money for essentially doing nothing… So everyone who can change things are just happy the way that it is.

    But then you hear about this stuff–and it just makes you sick.

  14. Increasingly, jail systems are giving inmates bill for their room & board at the jail. If you can’t pay those, then you get hit with a warrant and sent in for more jail time and a bigger bill.

    Example: http://mccrackencountyjailer.com/$_fees.htm

  15. Is it just me or has Ohio been in the news a lot lately for craziness like segregated proms and debtors prisons and stuff?

  16. It’s be nice to know what these fines were for. One’s sympathy is a lot higher if this was for failing to cut their lawn as opposed to running a red light or drunk driving or some such.

    1. No, it doesn’t matter.  If the person was convicted of drunk driving and given a fine then the fine is that person’s sentence for drunk driving.  Jailing someone for inability to pay a fine is unjust no matter what the fine was initially for.

      Please focus on the injustice and not on trying to find blame or fault the victims of that injustice.

  17. Ohio, Kent State, May 4, 1970

    “4 dead in O-hi-o”  

    They still haven’t learned what it means to be human

  18. I was surprised how little is spent to maintain somebody in the Huron County jail. $USD928 for 16 days is $USD58 per day! 
    A quick google suggests it costs $AUD200 per day to keep an Australian prisoner (our currencies are near parity currently) .
    That nutraloaf must be cheap!

    1. To do a fair comparison you need to look up the cost of keeping someone in a US state or preferably federal prison.  County jails are mostly little rinky-dink affairs that are used for holding people a few days until their court date if they can’t make bail.  They don’t require nearly as many facilities, guards, or equipment as a prison.

  19. As someone who worked in the court system in Ohio, the way we ran the courts was that if someone couldn’t pay, they just did community service. You merely state to the judge that you can’t pay. The only requirement is that you aren’t a full time employee somewhere. Because they also have payment plans. I’m not sure which courts were outright jailing people but it wasn’t that way in the region I worked in.

  20. I don’t know why but some comments are not in the comment section? I recieved a Disqus response notification, saying “David” had left me a comment. I come back here to reply, and the comment is nowhere, despite only being posted only three hours ago from this comment being posted!
    here is is:


    read all of the responses before responding but are you referring to
    the practice of a judge offering you the choice to pay a fine in lieu of
    serving jail time? $1,000 fine or 24hrs in county lockup? Your choice.
    Or the use of bail bondsmen? You get out on bail but if you don’t make
    your court hearings the bondsmen will pick you up so that they don’t
    lose their money. Just about all of these instances are from committed
    crimes. They don’t occur because you are unable to pay parking tickets.
    They’ll take your car if you can’t pay a file folder of tickets, but
    they won’t put you in jail.
    2:21 p.m., Sunday April 7

  21.         Press Release


           Many people naively believe that incarceration inevitably leads to
    rehabilitation; however, the public is unaware of what truly goes on behind
    prison walls in the United
    States. They are lulled into a false sense
    of security, when in fact the justice system is failing to take the necessary steps in rehabilitating prisoners
    and to keep society and prison workers safe. 


           Prisons are like a small city isolated from civilization, and
    after almost three decades of working in one of the most dangerous prisons in
    New York State; you learn fast, that only a fool criticizes what he doesn’t understand.



    are supporting a 16-trillion dollars deficit in this country and cannot correct,
    “the criminal mind that never sleeps.”

            Repeat felons and illegal immigrants
    commit most of the crime in the United States.

            After several decades of lawmakers and
    prison leaders catering, pampering and protecting the rights of violent criminals
    and their gangs, they have destroyed all our correctional facilities, which are
    now contaminated with flaws, embedded with unthinking, unknowing or corrupted
    prison officials and political bureaucrats.


    When we started building modern prison
    in the 1800s to incarcerate criminals, air, food and space was all that the
    Constitution called for. The United
    States was designing prisons to discipline
    and reform criminals, to return them back into society to live productive

    federal and state prisons have deteriorated to their worst condition in the
    history of these institutions. They have changed from being run with dignity
    and strong security into a hellish nightmare where corruption is the norm.

    people naively believe that incarceration inevitably leads to rehabilitation;
    however, the public is unaware of what truly goes on behind prison walls in the
    United States.
    They are lulled into a false sense of security, when in fact the justice system
    is failing to take the necessary steps in rehabilitating prisoners,
    to keep society and prison workers safe.       

    the loss of positive leadership in our prisons came the increase of prisoners’
    power, primarily caused by their ability to hide behind highly defended “civil
    rights,” which has now taken precedence above all else. These rights allowed
    them to live without fear of strong retribution for their actions, thereby
    leading to a breakdown in inmate behavior and resulting in riots, fights, and
    physical and verbal abuse of prison workers. Prison reform has become just a
    name to keep taxpayers’ money flowing into these institutions.

    United States
    has the highest and most expensive incarceration rate in the world and the most
    serial killers then any other country. And now, society lives in constant fear
    of repeat felons and illegal immigrants committing most of the crimes in the United States.

    started working at the Elmira Reformatory in Elmira, NY,
    which was built in 1876; it was the first adult reformatory in the world. In
    the late 1900s, many state prisons were changing their names to correctional
    facilities, along with the Elmira Reformatory
    changing to the Elmira
    Correctional Facility. Prison Guards throughout the country were called
    Correctional Officers. Elmira was now a
    maximum-security prison housing some of the most dangerous criminals in New York State. After decades of protecting
    violent prisoners, their gangs, and their rights, our prisons are now operating
    on a lack of administrative and prisoner discipline.

    many years, I moved daily between freedom and captivity while walking a
    delicate line between administrative politics and the threat of inmate
    violence. I was approaching my 25 year and ready to retire. I had many
    altercations with inmates and survived. But now I knew that the prison system
    was now so contaminated with flaws, embedded with unthinking, unknowing or
    corrupted prison officials and political bureaucrats. What I thought would
    happen did happen.

                The Tools of my trade filled my shop
    with dangerous weapons, knives and machinery, along with mentally disturbed
    inmates, murderers, drug pushers, sex offenders and non-violent prisoners.
    Prison security leaders ignored the danger of prison life and started removing
    security officers from all shops and classrooms. Inmates and their gangs wasted
    no time in creating more violence. In my shop, I was confronting a 275-pound
    muscular inmate who was serving two life terms for killing several people. He
    showed no remorse for human life. I gave him a direct order to work or be
    locked up. He laughed and chooses to be locked up. I did not know that this
    dangerous inmates wrote to the deputy of security threaten me and the deputy
    wrote back, the same day, telling the inmate, “I will take care of it.” He
    never did and I was never informed of the inmate’s intentions to harm me. My
    several misbehavior reports
    before the attack were ignored. And I was brutally attacked by this dangerous
    inmate and almost lost my life. A stroke of luck came when the inmate attacking
    me stopped for a few minutes and guards came running in and took control. I was
    taken to the prison and outside hospital, ending my prison career.  For therapeutic reason, I began writing books
    about my prison experiences, crime and justice in this country. It is time to
    act and I hope the diversity of my true, compelling and gripping stories will
    be a positive instrument in prison reform.



    For more true compelling and gripping stories visit my Website
    & VIDEO http://www.johnpecchio.com 

    Amazon.com, Kindle e-books,



    Sincerely and God bless America.        

    John J.






    1. The commenter in question edited his comment to say “..”, which is usually a hint for me to remove it.

      1. My own comments have also dissapeared, the one quoting that David fellow.

        When I looked at David’s disqus history, it never showed his comment, though i clearly  recieved it in the email update.

Comments are closed.