The Ohio Model for Combatting Debtors’ Prisons

This essay builds on the ACLU of Ohio’s 2013 report that exposed the devastating effects of jailing poor and indigent Ohioans who can’t afford to pay their fines and fees. Beginning with personal narratives of people who have been impacted by debtors’ prisons, the authors explain why the ACLU decided to forgo litigation and design an advocacy model that focused on the Ohio Supreme Court. The article summarizes the research, advocacy, and communications tools the ACLU of Ohio used to successfully combat debtors’ prisons and provides guidance on how to execute similar strategies in other states.

You can read the full text here.

Key Findings
  • The Ohio Supreme Court agreed to implement three reforms after their court and lower courts received demand letters from the ACLU documenting illegal practices: (1) hold accountable court personnel who perpetuate debtors’ prisons; (2) provide training for judicial and non-judicial staff on how to appropriately collect fines and fees; and (3) create and distribute a bench card on the collection of fines and fees for municipal judges.
  • The ACLU of Ohio’s campaign was widely successful: municipal court procedures were changed, “warrants were recalled, people were released from jail, and more than $180,000 was credited to individuals who were unconstitutionally jailed for failure to pay fines.”
Practical advocacy campaign guide
  • Verify individual allegations of debtors’ prisons with online court records.
  • Decide on the campaign medium: litigation/legal, media/advocacy, or a combination of both.
Jocelyn Rosnick, Mike Brickner, ACLU of Ohio
Michigan Journal of Race and Law, Vol. 21, Issue 2