Monday, October 13, 2014

WDRB: Bullitt County "debtor's prison" raises constitutional questions

 "Sit or Pay" rulings challenged
SHEPHERDSVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Convicted of receiving stolen property in 2011, George Schmidt Jr. fell behind on his court-ordered restitution payments – and that was enough for a Bullitt County judge to order Schmidt to jail, indefinitely, until Schmidt could come up with the full $1,265 he owed.

There Schmidt sat for more than nine months until an attorney asked for his release in February 2012, arguing that district judge Rebecca Ward's “sit or pay” ruling was unconstitutional.

Schmidt's public defender said the judge had essentially jailed someone too poor to pay, without a hearing or attorney, despite a ruling more than 30 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing the practice, which is often called “debtor's prison.”

In fact, Bullitt County judges have for years jailed defendants indefinitely for not paying restitution or certain court fees, according to a WDRB review of cases.

“The Constitution guarantees that people have due process, an attorney and a hearing -- and none of those things are being given to any of these people,” said Jennifer Wittmeyer, director of the Bullitt County Public Defender's office, who represented Schmidt.

The unconstitutional “sit or pay” cases aren't unique to Bullitt County, said Ed Monahan, head of Kentucky's Department of Public Advocacy, which represents defendants who cannot afford an attorney.
“It is a big problem in Kentucky,” he said in an e-mail. “Poor people are being locked up for not paying when there has been no willful refusal to pay.”
Complete article