Michigan Supreme Court cracks down on 'pay or stay' imprisonment

The court has proposed adopting a standard rule to assess whether defendants can pay fines. In many cases, judges jail those who cannot, but the practice is illegal. 

Greg DeRuiter/Lansing State Journal/AP/File
55th District Court Judge Tom Boyd questions a defendant in Mason, Mich., Feb. 12, 2014. Without a comma of dissent, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down an enduring practice that had brought millions of dollars to local courts from people convicted of crimes. Lawmakers from both parties swiftly trumped the ruling by passing a law that legalized the custom. 'This was a bad idea,' said Thomas Boyd, a judge in Ingham County who will be the next president of a statewide group of District Court judges.

Michigan's Supreme Court has proposed new regulations to determine if defendants can afford to pay court fines, which would strengthen widely disregarded laws against jailing people who cannot pay them without hardship.

Critics say that the hodgepodge system for determining a person's ability to pay has created a modern-day version of debtors' prisons, which were outlawed in the early 1800s, and essentially resulted in a "pay or stay" system. People who cannot afford fines for arrests, tickets, or court fees often wind up in jail, where they accrue more costs, while they are prevented from earning money. 

According to an investigation from NPR, judges across the country have adopted different standards for determining someone's ability to pay, creating unequal and often inaccurate rules that flout the US Supreme Court's 1983 ruling that judges may imprison someone who "willfully" refuses to pay a court fee or fine, but not someone who cannot afford it .

One judge told NPR that he guesses whether a person can pay based on their clothing and appearance. Others "tell people to get the money from family members or to use Temporary Aid to Needy Family checks, Social Security disability income, veterans' benefits or other welfare checks to pay their court fees first – or else face going to jail," reporter Joseph Shapiro wrote in 2014. 

"It's not that it's wrong to charge people money as a way to punish them," American Civil Liberties Union attorney Miriam Aukerman told Mr. Shapiro. "But there have to be alternatives for people who can't pay. And that alternative cannot be: incarceration if you're poor, payment if you're rich."

"Pay or stay sentencing in Michigan needs to go. Adopting this court rule would emphasize the need for equal treatment under the law for all defendants, regardless of their financial situation," the Detroit News wrote in an October editorial. 

The Supreme Court proposes that judges adopt standard criteria to assess a defendant's ability to pay, considering employment, cash, and living expenses. They will accept public comment until March 1. 

"We’re thrilled," Michael Steinberg, legal director of the state's ACLU, told the Associated Press. "We applaud the Michigan Supreme Court for acting to end the shameful practice."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the Supreme Court's 1983 ruling regarding court fines. 

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