Convicts paying for courts as lawmakers trump major ruling
Detroit — 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.
The reason was simple: It was illegal. There was nothing in state law, the justices unanimously said, that allowed local governments to hit convicts for the everyday expense of running the courts. But the practical impact of that 2014 decision didn’t last long.
Lawmakers from both parties, joined by Gov. Rick Snyder, swiftly trumped the ruling by passing a law that legalized the custom. The law expires in 2017, giving the public an opportunity in the months ahead to debate whether Michigan’s courts should be subsidized by many who can least afford it.
“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.
“The market forces that work for the butcher and the baker are inconsistent with the core principles of justice,” Boyd said. “To put courts in a position to create revenue to pay their bills isn’t a good idea.”
A defense attorney, John Shea of Ann Arbor, said criminals should make restitution to their victims when necessary but billing them to keep lights on at a courthouse or to wax the floor isn’t fair.
“They didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what we had to say,” Shea said of lawmakers.
Local governments that run courts were desperate for a remedy. The Michigan Association of Counties called the Supreme Court decision a “crisis” threatening to “destabilize the entire court system” through the loss of tens of millions of dollars. The association referred to the money paid by convicts as a “user fee.”
“If they don’t want to pay a fee, don’t commit a crime,” said Mike Day, court administrator in Allegan County in western Michigan. “Why should taxpayers of the state of Michigan have to foot the entire bill of the court system?”
Allegan County charges a maximum of $1,000 if someone is convicted in Circuit Court; $500 if that person doesn’t need a court-appointed lawyer. The county has collected $315,000 since 2014, Day said.
Convicts can be assessed a portion of a court’s overall costs, such as salaries and benefits, building maintenance and other services. In Allegan, it includes the cost of an employee fitness center.
Not all counties are the same. Washtenaw County charges as much as $1,600 when someone is convicted of a felony, appellate lawyer Terry Flanagan said.
District Courts, the ground floor of Michigan’s criminal justice system, can order operating costs, too, although they’re usually lower. More people typically pass through a District Court because it handles traffic tickets and all misdemeanors. There were 35,000 drunken driving cases filed in 2014.
Eastpointe, a Detroit suburb, pleaded with lawmakers to fix the Supreme Court decision. City Manager Steve Duchane described Eastpointe as already being in a “fiscal hospice” in 2014 and at risk of losing $220,000 a year if it couldn’t continue to hit “bad actors” with court operating costs.
“That ruling was going to put a very serious strain on local budgets. We needed to act quickly,” said House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant. “I think it’s a good system, but we’ll let the Legislature re-evaluate it when the time comes.”
Indeed, the law’s three-year expiration will bring parties to the bargaining table again. Shea, the defense attorney, believes the state should take responsibility for funding courts, not local governments.
“We keep kicking cans down the road,” he said. “We’re kind of adverse as a society to grappling with what it costs to run an organized society. We’re not in the horse-and-buggy society anymore.”
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