State Supreme Court rules curb ‘pay-or-stay’ sentences

Detroit News staff and wire reports

The Michigan Supreme Court on Wednesday announced amendments to state rules aimed at keeping people from jail time because they can’t pay court fines or fees.

Effective Sept. 1, a judge cannot send someone to jail for nonpayment of fines and fees without determining if the defendant can afford to pay. Job status, available cash, basic living expenses and other special circumstances can be considered to find out whether there’s a “manifest hardship” in complying with the order, the Supreme Court said. After that, judges can devise a payment plan or waive all or part of the money owed.

The Supreme Court changes follow the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan challenging “pay-or-stay” sentencing practices, including the practice at one time of an Eastpointe judge.

“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, in a statement.

“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 U.S. Supreme Court has long prohibited jailing poor people if they are unable to afford such costs, but ACLU officials allege judges in Michigan and elsewhere have followed the practice.

The ACLU accused Eastpointe Judge Carl Gerds III of repeatedly sending people to jail if they couldn’t afford to pay a fine. Challenging him in court, the group represented Eastpointe resident Donna Anderson, who feared going to jail because she couldn’t afford to immediately pay $445 for failing to have her dogs licensed.

Earlier this year, Gerds agreed to end the pay-or-stay sentences.

ACLU officials said they have also requested a federal investigation after the 2014 death of David Stojcevski, who was in the Macomb County Jail because he couldn’t pay $772 in fines.

The Supreme Court rules are “a significant step forward in preventing the unnecessary and illegal incarceration of poor people,” said Bob Gillett, executive director of the Michigan Advocacy Program, which offers legal service efforts for people with low income.

“Up until now there was no guidance in the court rules about what courts could do before sending someone to jail for nonpayment of a fee.”