DETROIT — Striking a major blow against unconstitutional “pay or stay” sentencing practices, the Macomb County Circuit Court entered a final order yesterday requiring an Eastpointe judge to stop jailing indigent defendants who fail to pay court fees and fines before first determining whether they have the ability to pay.
“We’re elated about the court’s order because it upholds a basic principle of fairness in our nation—that nobody should be jailed just because he or she is too poor to pay fines, fees and costs,” said ACLU of Michigan legal director Michael J. Steinberg, whose organization filed a lawsuit in July asking the circuit court to take “superintending control” over the 38th District Court in Eastpointe and end unconstitutional “pay or stay” sentencing. “We are relieved to know that defendants in Eastpointe no longer have to worry about landing in what amounts to illegal debtors’ prisons.”
The order, which was agreed to by the district court judge to settle the case, comes nearly two months after the Michigan Supreme Court announced it was considering a series of reforms to the state’s court rules that are designed to prohibit judges from jailing indigent defendants based on their inability to pay. Yesterday’s order incorporates the proposed court rules as the standard procedure for Eastpointe’s district court.
The ACLU filed its lawsuit, known as an action for superintending control, after court-watchers in Eastpointe observed that 38th District Court Judge Carl F. Gerds III had a standard practice of routinely imposing “pay or stay” sentences without determining whether the defendants could afford to pay. In the ACLU case, Eastpointe resident Donna Anderson was facing jail time because she could not afford to pay a $455 fine related to a minor dog-ordinance infraction.
Representing Anderson, the ACLU argued that Judge Gerds’ “pay or stay” sentencing practice was unconstitutional because it created a two-tier system of justice: person of means could pay money and remain free, whereas poor people who could not afford to pay faced jail. Under well-established precedent set by the United States Supreme Court decades ago, judges are required to ascertain a defendant’s ability to pay and, if the defendant is too poor, develop a payment plan, reduce the amount owed, or craft an alternative sentence such as community service.
As part of its campaign to end “pay or stay” sentencing, the ACLU is advocating that the Michigan Supreme Court immediately adopt the proposed new court rules for implementation statewide. Anderson’s case is the latest in a series of cases highlighted by the ACLU demonstrating that debtors’ prisons remain prevalent throughout the state.
In addition to Steinberg, Ms. Anderson was represented by ACLU of Michigan deputy legal director Dan Korobkin and staff attorney Miriam Aukerman.