LANSING—In a severe blow to the illegal “pay-or-stay” sentencing practices being challenged by the ACLU of Michigan and other groups, the state Supreme Court today announced a series of amendments to court rules designed to ensure that individuals are no longer jailed simply because they’re too poor to pay court costs.
“Debtors’ prisons have continued to be a persistent problem in Michigan, so we’re extremely grateful that the Supreme Court has taken such significant steps to prevent people from being locked up for no reason other than their inability to pay fines and fees,” said Miriam Aukerman, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “Being poor isn’t a crime and shouldn’t condemn you to serving jail time that someone with means can pay to avoid. These changes to our sentencing rules are most welcome and long overdue.”
The most significant of the court’s changes prohibits judges from sentencing a person to jail for nonpayment without first determining whether the person can afford to pay. If a court discovers that a person lacks the ability to pay fees and/or fines, the court can set up a payment plan or waive part or all of what a person owes.
Under the amended rules, when figuring out whether a person can pay fines and costs, courts must consider a range of criteria, including the person’s employment history, earning ability and living expenses.
The new rules stem from extensive efforts by the ACLU of Michigan and other criminal-justice reform groups to end debtors’ prisons. The ACLU has also challenged unconstitutional “pay-or-stay” sentencing practices in court, most recently in Eastpointe, and has asked the federal government to investigate.