Being poor isn't a crime. Yet in some Michigan courtrooms, that simple fact has been ignored.

That’s why we’re pleased that the continuing problem of debtors’ prisons in our state was addressed last week in Lansing.

Debtors’ prisons and “pay-or-stay” sentences throw people in jail because they can't pay court fines or fees. These sentences are patently unconstitutional.

When an inability to pay becomes the reason someone is serving time, it isn’t the defendant's crime but rather their poverty that is being punished. Often, the crimes themselves wouldn’t even be sufficient cause to incarcerate someone on their own.

State Senators Jim Ananich (D-Flint), Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) and Bert Johnson (D-Detroit) have sponsored a new package of bills (Senate Bills 1113-1115) to strengthen the longstanding ban on debtors’ prisons by:

  • offering defendants one last chance to talk to a judge before a warrant is issued for their arrest;
  • capping the amount of fees a court can charge;
  • and requiring that the defendant’s socioeconomic status be factored into consideration of their ability to pay fees and fines.

That last bit is crucial. If a defendant is too poor to pay the full amount of fines and fees, alternatives such as a financial adjustment with community service or a payment plan must be made available.

The legislators leading this charge ought to be lauded for their efforts. The bills are an important step in the right direction, and we hope to see the legislation move forward without delay.

It’s a miserable commentary on the condition of our legal system that the country in general and the State of Michigan in particular continue to wrestle with the prevalence of debtor’s prisons—an issue that should have been settled 200 years ago.

You won’t find a more damning indictment of our two-tiered justice system.

Not only is this ethically rotten, it’s a perversion of justice. The tragedy of debtors’ prisons is allowing state agents to run unchecked and the wealthy to go free while the poor are defenseless.

So what the senators have put forth is crucial to true justice in our state.

Yet while we support this proposed legislation, it's important to remember passing a law is one thing. Ensuring that the law is respected and followed is another.

I’m reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s piercing moral refrain: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Though I agree with Dr. King’s basic premise, we shouldn’t allow it to undermine legitimate criticisms of institutional power.

The injured won’t find solace in the notion of our country’s eventual moral reckoning with itself, nor should they.

What often gets neglected is something Dr. King and countless human rights activists throughout history have understood—that ensuring justice requires consistent and determined action.

To be clear: this burden ought to be shared by those who enjoy the law's protection, rather than added to the weight already shouldered by those who disproportionately suffer the absence of justice.

By Eli Day, Civil Liberties Fellow

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