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Ohio ACLU report finds that mayor's courts 'prioritize money over justice'

ACLU billboard
ACLU file image
Posted at 1:15 PM, Apr 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-15 17:05:55-04

COLUMBUS — The Ohio ACLU has released a report Monday finding that nearly 300 mayor’s courts in Ohio “prioritize money over justice,” and recommending five reforms to implement in order for mayor’s courts to be fair, transparent and accountable.

“Mayor’s courts are relics from the nineteenth century –Louisiana is the only other state that has them in operation –yet they are big business here in Ohio,” said Sri Thakkilapati, senior policy researcher at the ACLU of Ohio. For example, the mayor’s court in North Olmsted collected over $1.3 million in 2016 from unsuspecting Ohioans. “The fundamental problem is that mayor’s courts consolidate executive and judicial power in the office of the mayor, allowing revenue-oriented police and court practices to flourish unchecked under the current system.”

The ACLU put up a billboard near a hot spot for speeding tickets on Interstate 90. It reads: “Bratenahl’s mayor’s court collected over half a million dollars in 2017.”

The ACLU report contends that in Ohio’s mayor’s courts, it is nearly impossible to get a truly fair and impartial hearing. Their investigation found that a substantial proportion of these courts operate in ways that suggest they prioritize money over justice.

“It does bring in revenue, that’s important in a bedroom community," Bratenahl Mayor John Licastro said in response to the report. "But our motivation is to keep the general public safe.”

“The policing for profit that we’ve observed in inner-ring mayor’s court municipalities most negatively affects low-income communities and communities of color,” noted Thakkilapati.

“We treat every defendant with respect," Licastro responded. "We are never heavy-handed.”

In a Mayor’s court, the mayor is in direct control over the court and police department. The ACLU said this creates an incentive to write more tickets and raise revenue.

“These courts are not about public safety they are about profit,” Thakkilapati said. “Police are issuing far more citations than police elsewhere in this state."

The ACLU studied citation rates in municipalities across the state and found disparities that suggested police resources were used to generate municipal revenue through issuing traffic citations.

“Mayor’s Courts can use the threat and reality of arrest and jail time to compel the payment of fines – a common practice is the issuance of arrest warrants for missed court appearances,” states an ACLU news release on the report.

“The problems with mayor’s courts are overwhelming. The lack of transparency and temptation to generate revenue through these courts make them counter to the interests of justice,” added Jocelyn Rosnick, advocacy director for the ACLU of Ohio. “We call on the Ohio General Assembly to enact our recommendations to prevent further erosion of public trust in the criminal justice system.”

The ACLU issued the following five recommendations for the Ohio General Assembly: “restore state funding to municipalities, eliminate mayor’s courts in Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, and Summit Counties, increase education and procedural requirements for mayor’s courts, expand oversight of mayor’s courts, and abolish driver’s license suspensions for any reason not related to public safety.”

Read the complete ACLU report here.