The ACLU of Michigan has been working to abolish modern-day debtors’ prisons for the past seven years. As part of this work, I have observed courts and represented clients throughout the state, from Muskegon to Port Huron.
No place, however, has resonated with me like the tiny Detroit suburb of Eastpointe, where the constant incarceration of people too poor to pay fines—many of them black—eerily reminds of the sort of exploitative court practices recently uncovered in Ferguson, Mo.
A town of just more than 30,000, Eastpointe (which is the subject of an ACLU Freedom of Information Act request filed today) sits just north of Detroit proper, along the infamous 8 Mile Rd. border that has been the historic dividing line between the largely black city and its predominantly white suburbs. And while Eastpointe, similar to many of those inner-ring suburbs, has seen its minority population grow in recent years, it still engages in practices that we decry as not just biased but illegal.
Count debtors’ prisons among them.
Overseen by the 38th District Court in Macomb County, Eastpointe has been something of a hotbed for pay-or-stay cases for the ACLU of Michigan. During the past year, I have worked to free or prevent the jailing of citizens who were unable to pay fines for a host of alleged minor offenses—from jaywalking to driving on a suspended license to failure to license a dog. This March, my ACLU of Michigan colleagues and I even secured a written decision from the Macomb County Circuit Court acknowledging the practice is in fact unconstitutional.
Yet, incredibly, the 38th District Court continued to jail people simply because the defendants could not afford fines and fee. Consequently, the ACLU took the extraordinary step of filing a writ of superintending control with the Macomb County Circuit Court, asking it to stop the 38th District Court from sending indigent defendants to jail solely because they cannot pay outstanding fines and fees. That action is currently pending.
We took this unusual step precisely because we know well how these unconstitutional “pay or stay” practices can damage poor people accused of little more than the pettiest of infractions. I have seen people lose their jobs because they were jailed for not being able to pay—jobs that, frankly, put them in the class of the working poor, but provided them with enough money to keep the lights on.
One minor infraction, something I would easily put behind me by paying the fine, can unravel entire lives if a judge responds to those who are unable to pay by jailing them. And we’re not talking about a small group of people either. In Michigan, approximately 40 percent of households are working poor—meaning most of them are one dog license ticket away from financial disaster. No one deserves to be subjected to such inhumane and clearly unconstitutional practices.
From a public policy prospective, over-criminalization and debtors’ prisons are similarly ill-founded. The Macomb County Jail, where the 38th District Court sends Eastpointe residents to “sit out their fines,” recently declared an overcrowding emergency—for the 15th time in 12 years. Equipped with 1,218 beds, the jail is routinely over capacity.
How does the Sheriff address this problem?
Simple: Release inmates who are not there for violent offenses and do not pose significant risks to public safety—starting with those serving “pay or stay” sentences. “Pay or stay” inmates are people who never should have been incarcerated in the first place, people who, according to Macomb County, cost taxpayers $94.32 a day to incarcerate for no other reason than their poverty.
But the injustice of incarcerating individuals because they are too poor to pay is only part of the story. Another important piece of the puzzle is over-policing in communities of color. One of my clients, Mr. Milton, was ticketed in Eastpointe for jaywalking, a crime that resulted in a $334 fine. Mr. Milton is black.
I am bi-racial, easily pass as white and I am also an attorney. Because of my race and class privilege, I have never once been stopped, questioned, or harassed by the police for jaywalking—even though I admittedly have crossed the street against the red light many times. And because of my privilege, I suspect that I will never face this type of police harassment.
However, aggressive policing is something people of color deal with daily. Police encounters that begin with accusations of jaywalking or speeding or improper license plates all too often end in the loss of another black life at the hands of police. The mounting body count is what has compelled so many to proclaim what should be, but is clearly not, a given—Black Lives Matter. Yet, even when these police encounters do not result in the ultimate tragedy, citizens walk away with citations that funnel them into the criminal justice system.
What, besides conscious or unconscious bias, motivates the police to issue so many tickets for minor offenses? What motivates the police to, as happened to another black client of mine, Donna Anderson, canvass low-income neighborhoods looking for unlicensed dogs?
In both 2013 and 2014 the City of Eastpointe collected more than $2 million in revenue from court fines and fees, meaning that nearly 11 percent of the operating budget for the City of Eastpointe comes from court fines and fees.
The City of Eastpointe, unlike Detroit or Grand Rapids, does not have a city income tax to generate necessary revenue to fund city operations. A city income tax, which is admittedly rare in Michigan, may not be the answer. But it is certainly fundamentally unfair to fund city operations on the backs of those least able to afford it by aggressively collecting fines from people living in over-policed neighborhoods—people who are disproportionately poor and of color.
And it is certainly a perversion of justice that an openly stated objective of the 38th District Court in Eastpointe is to “increase revenue”—meaning the collection of more fines. Does this all sound familiar? The pattern I’ve witnessed in Eastpointe is reminiscent of the Department of Justice’s findings in the Ferguson Report. According to the report, about 12.5 percent of the City of Ferguson’s operating budget came from court fines and fees. In Eastpointe, that figure is 11 percent.
Obviously, Ferguson is not unique. In truth, Ferguson is Everywhere, USA—and that includes many places right here in Michigan.
But that doesn’t mean we have to tolerate them.
As I mentioned earlier, the ACLU of Michigan today submitted a FOIA to the City of Eastpointe, requesting a variety of information related to law enforcement in the suburb:
- Copies of tickets issued in the last six months for various minor offenses
- Detailed Eastpointe budgetary information
- The racial demographics of the city’s police force
- Information on the number of warrants issued by the 38th District Court
The results of this FOIA will help us all better understand who is being policed and for what in the City of Eastpointe. We hope our efforts will complement and support current movements to restructure our criminal justice system. Our criminal justice system shouldn’t be viewed as one more revenue stream.
Our cops, our courts, their only concerns should be people and public safety—not profit.
By Sofia Nelson, a legal fellow with the ACLU of Michigan. This blog was originally published on Aug. 18, 2015.