The Ohio Supreme Court has ordered Ohio courts to stop reviving debtors’ prison. In other words, Ohio outlaws debtors’ prison. In February 2014, the high court indicated that it would not tolerate the court’s imprisoning people who could not afford to pay fines and costs.
What is debtors’ prison?
Debtors’ prison is when one is incarcerated for not paying a debt. As late as the nineteenth century, Western European countries dealt with unpaid debt through the use of debtors’ prisons. Such practices date back to ancient Athens, where Athenians were sold into slavery through debt bondage. Debt bondage was outlawed in Athens in 600 B.C. The Romans also used this practice until it too was outlawed in 326 B.C. In the Middle Ages in Europe, debtors were locked up in a single cell with other imprisoned debtors until their families paid their debt. Many debtors died of disease and starvation in such conditions. Debt bondage was revived in this system, as many debt prisoners were released to become serfs or indentured servants until they paid off their debt by working for their creditor. Some form of debtors’ prison continued until it was outlawed in most countries in the 1800s.
What is the Ohio Supreme Court doing to stop the revival of debtor’s prison?
The Ohio Supreme Court has issued a bench card outlining the procedures that courts must follow. The first paragraph of that bench card sets the tone:
“Fines are separate from court costs. Court costs and fees are civil, not criminal, obligations and may be collected only by the methods provided for the collection of civil judgments. Sole authority exists under R.C. 2947.14 for a court or magistrate to commit an offender to jail for nonpayment of fines in a criminal case. An offender CANNOT be held in contempt of court for refusal to pay fines. Accordingly, unpaid fines and/or court costs may neither be a condition of probation, nor grounds for an extension or violation of probation.”
However, the Ohio Supreme Court is not saying that someone who can afford to pay can use this new approach to avoid paying. “A person may be jailed for a willful refusal of nonpayment of a fine that he or she has the ability to pay.” An ability-to-pay hearing is required prior to jailing someone for nonpayment of a fine. Any jail imposed for failure to pay fines shall be credited at the rate of fifty dollars per day. Jail cannot be imposed for failure to pay court costs.
Read my other articles on criminal law in Ohio: can juveniles go to adult prison in Ohio; will the Ohio judge agree to an agreed sentence; not all fifth degree felonies are alike in Ohio; misdemeanors versus felonies in Ohio; Ohio court limits sex offender registration for juveniles; Ohio courts arrest and send people to other states; felony theft in Ohio; shoplifting in Ohio; and time served in Ohio. My record of success speaks for itself. I have successfully defended individuals for both misdemeanor and felony offenses, as set forth in the case highlights section.
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