Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Association of Municipal/County Judges of Ohio
Jan. 23, 2017

Good morning.

Thank you Judge (Deborah) LeBarron (Euclid Municipal Court judge and outgoing AMCJO president) for that introduction and for your leadership of the association over the past year. I’m pleased to be here.

Before I administer the oath of office to association officers, I want to address one of the nation’s most fundamental access to justice issues: so-called “Debtors’ Prisons.”

You no doubt are familiar with this issue in reference to Ferguson, Missouri, and the U.S. Dept. of Justice findings that the city’s municipal court focused on raising revenue rather than public safety needs.

So what is the judiciary doing about the problem of collecting fines and fees from offenders who do not have the means to pay?

The most recent activity involves the work of the National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices, which was established by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators.

The task force seeks to address the ongoing impact that court fines, fees, and bail practices have on economically disadvantaged communities across the United States.

I serve as co-chair with Kentucky State Court Administrative Director Laurie Dudgeon

As co-chairs, we created three working groups:

Access to Justice and Fairness.

Transparency, Governance & Structural Reform.

and Accountability, Judicial Performance and Qualification, and Oversight.

Here is a sampling of issues the task force is addressing:

The drafting of model statutes, court rules, policies, processes and procedures for setting, collecting, and waiving court-imposed payments.

Compiling and creating best practices for setting, processing, and codifying the collection of fines, fees, bails, and bonds.

Reviewing and revising suggested guidelines for qualifications and oversight of judges in courts created by local governments or traffic courts, including reviewing and updating state codes of judicial conduct and the jurisdiction of judicial conduct commissions to ensure their applicability to all judges.

One of the task force’s deliverables will be a bench card, due by the end of this month, for distribution to judges nationwide. Please stay tuned to ensure you receive a copy.

The U.S. Department of Justice is also deeply involved on this issue. DOJ workshops/meetings have covered the momentum of the reform efforts and the identification of justice system practices that contribute to the cycle of poverty and prevent successful reentry efforts.

Even with a new administration taking office, I do not foresee the DOJ dialing back the effort to pursue this reform because it is rooted in constitutional principles that are well-established.

In Ohio, we’ve been hard at work attacking this problem for a while.

In 2013, the ACLU of Ohio met with me, our staff, and judges to discuss its findings in “The Outskirts of Hope.” The report alleged unconstitutional practices of the collection of fines and costs in seven counties. None of us want the public to perceive justice in this manner, so engaging our critics was essential to solving the problems.

We took an active role on several fronts to educate judges and court personnel regarding state statutes and case law about the collection of court costs and fines. Courses were presented at judicial association meetings to raise awareness of the problems and present solutions.

We developed an adult court bench card for judges in 2014 – the first one in the nation – in consultation with a workgroup that included Lakewood Municipal Court Judge Pat Carroll, Defiance Municipal Court Judge John Rohrs, and Fairborn Municipal Court Judge Beth Root.

Intended as a reference guide, the bench card briefly explains the differences between court costs and fines, when enforcing fines by incarceration is appropriate, and the process for a court to substitute community service as payment for court costs. It also includes citations to state statutes and court cases.

The bench card begins with a general statement about fines and court costs and appropriate collection methods.

“Fines are separate from court costs. Court costs, restitution 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.”

In 2016, we made available a similar bench card for juvenile courts.

The juvenile court bench card briefly explains the fine schedule per type of offense, assessing obligations on parents for the delinquent acts of a child, and the process for a court to substitute community service as payment for court costs. It also includes citations to state statutes and court cases.

Also in 2016, we made available a bench card regarding sealing criminal records and the proper steps to take to waive fees for those who can’t afford to pay them.

The reference guide – developed by Supreme Court staff and Judge Carroll – seeks to better educate the judicial branch about who is eligible to have a record sealed, when an offender may apply to have his record sealed, the fees that can be charged, and when a filing fee is not required.

The bench card also briefly outlines the elements of the state statute that governs the sealing of a criminal record and provides sample language for courts to waive the application fee because of indigency.

For more than three years, the Supreme Court has used judge association meetings, Judicial College courses, and less-formal settings to educate judges and court personnel about the issue. We intend to raise this issue at every turn, so no Ohio judge is unaware.

To be clear, I know that Ohio’s judges agree with me that courts are not to be used as an ATM for city council. You know, as well as I do, that it is the role of the local funding authority to provide adequate funds for courts to operate. Courts should not be mandated to self-fund from fines and fees.

A recent story in the Findlay newspaper highlights the difficult position many of you may be in.

Findlay Municipal Court seeks to end the culture of “put it on my tab,” and start collecting unpaid court fines and costs.

As of Dec. 21, offenders owed the court $11.7 million in outstanding fines and costs. Back in 2010, that tab was $2.8 million.

Starting this month, the court will try other ways to collect on the debt, but, by law, the court must follow specific guidelines.

Judge Jonathan Starn told the newspaper that the court is not some super collection agency. “Our hands have really been tied in the last few years,” he said.

This article – and others – leave the impression that you have a responsibility to collect fines and costs. We must educate the public and media that collecting courts costs is NOT a judicial responsibility. This attitude furthers a wrong-headed assumption that courts serve as ATMs and affects the public’s perception about fairness in courts.

Judges do not give convicted criminals a free pass, but accountability for criminal behavior must be considered on an individual basis with many factors, including the ability to pay a fine, factored into your individual decisions. When we accomplish this, I am convinced that public faith in the fairness of our judicial system will increase dramatically.

You would do well to drive home to your funding authorities that municipal and county courts are not an extension of the executive branch. Each of you preside over an equal and separate branch. When we accomplish this, you will be free from unrealistic community expectations.

As another way to draw attention to the issue, PBS’s Tavis Smiley filmed an episode of his “Courting Justice” series in Cleveland in December.

Joining me on the panel were former Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown, Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Ronald Adrine, and Judge Carroll. I encourage you to watch the program. You can find it on PBS’s website.

I’ve mentioned Judge Carroll’s name a few times for his work in this arena, but I also must give another shout-out to Judge Adrine on a related issue.

In December, Judge Adrine announced that the Cleveland Municipal Court would implement an assessment system to set bail based on the likelihood of whether a suspect would skip bail or commit a crime if released without bail.

The assessment tool was developed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Judge Adrine said he was hopeful that by using the public safety assessment tool, the court would continue to bolster public safety and ensure that only those who pose a significant risk are detained, and those who can be safely released are able to be productive members of our community while they await their court date.

A foundation representative also applauded the initiative noting that unnecessary pretrial detentions put a major strain on local budgets and have an enormous impact on defendants’ lives.

I couldn’t agree more, and I would encourage other courts to consider using this assessment tool.

Thank you for your time and attention today and, most of all, thank you for your service in furthering the cause of justice in Ohio. Without your dedication to rule of law and to faithfully and impartially discharging your duties, justice cannot be done in Ohio.