Locking up people who can’t pay their fines or court costs: It’s not only wrong -- it’s illegal and unconstitutional.
But some Ohio judges, who should know better, do it, anway. They jail people too poor to pay, turning local lockups into, in effect, 19th century debtor’s prisons.
That’s what happened to Jack Dawley, 55, of Norwalk. Out of work because of a herniated disk, arthritis, and other medical problems, the former construction worker racked up nearly $1,500 in fines stemming from disorderly conduct and drunk driving charges.
When he was able to work, he paid $20 a month on the fines. But when he couldn’t work, he couldn’t pay. Dawley served three days in jail in 2007, three days in 2010, and 10 days last year for non-payment, courtesy of the Norwalk Municipal Court.
Making matters worse, the 10 days he served last May cost him a job he had just found as a retail clerk in Sandusky. Because he lost the job, Dawley couldn’t pay the court. Plus, locking him up and executing the warrants cost the county more than $2,000.
That doesn’t make dollars or sense.
"I’ve made some poor choices but a judge is supposed to know the law,’’ Dawley told me today. "I just want them to do the right thing."
THE ACLU of Ohio found dozens of similar cases across Ohio. Courts in Cuyahoga, Huron, and Erie counties were among the worst, the ACLU concluded in its report "Outskirts of Hope."
I called the Supreme Court of Ohio to see what it planned to do about it. A spokesman there said Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor was checking it out and planned to meet with the ACLU.
Here’s what the Supreme Court should do: Remind local judges what state law and the constitution say and sanction them if they don’t follow it.
If it happened to you, call the Ohio Supreme Court: 614.387.9060. They’ve already heard from more than 200 people about it.