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Court Fines Leading to Modern-Day Debtors Prisons

If you’ve ever read a Charles Dickens novel, you might be familiar with the concept of debtors prisons. Back in the 19th century, debtors prisons were places where people who owed money they couldn’t pay would be incarcerated. They would have to stay until they either worked off the money they owed, or found the money to pay their debts.

Debtors prisons are supposed to be a thing of the past. People don’t get sent to jail in the 21st century United States for being unable to pay a credit card or a car loan, for example. However, there’s a rising trend of people being imprisoned because they’re too poor to pay court fees and fines in criminal cases — creating what is in effect modern-day debtors prisons.

Here in Ohio, people who get traffic tickets or criminal fines they can’t pay may find themselves facing charges of contempt of court for their failure to pay, and then facing arrest warrants because of the contempt charges. This is happening even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a few cases in the 1970s and 1980s that jailing someone because they’re too poor to pay a fine is unconstitutional.

A court is supposed to conduct a hearing to determine a person’s ability or inability to pay before incarcerating them for non-payment of traffic or criminal fines. However, the ACLU of Ohio issued a report in 2013 that found courts in several Ohio counties were jailing people for non-payment, with no evidence that any hearing had been conducted to determine their ability to pay.

According to the ACLU, among the worst offenders were Cuyahoga County, Erie County, and Huron County. The municipal courts in Parma and Sandusky also were noted in the report for their practice of jailing people who had failed to pay fines.

Unfortunately, there’s not much that a person who owes traffic or criminal fines can do, even through bankruptcy. Under a Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy, you generally cannot discharge:

  • Court fees
  • Traffic fines
  • Parking tickets
  • Criminal fines
  • Court-ordered restitution for a crime

These types of fines, fees, and penalties typically are not dischargeable under a Chapter 13 bankruptcy either, but you may be able to pay them over time through a Chapter 13 plan. This is one of the best ways to structure a payment plan of all of these fines and fees based on what you can afford per month, rather than what the creditors try to force you to pay.

In addition, if you’re overwhelmed with other debt that’s preventing you from paying traffic or court fines, a bankruptcy lawyer might be able to help you get out from under the weight of credit cards, medical bills or other financial burdens. A lawyer also may be able to help you negotiate an affordable payment plan for your court fines outside of a bankruptcy case so that they don’t continue to threaten your freedom.

If you’re in debt and want to discuss your options, the experienced Cleveland bankruptcy lawyers at Luftman, Heck & Associates offer a free consultation. Call us today at <span class=”ibp”></span> for an appointment.