Proposed rule would boost ban on pay-or-jail sentences
Detroit — The Michigan Supreme Court is proposing a rule that would strengthen the ban on sending poor people to jail if they can’t afford to pay fines.
The practice has been prohibited for decades by the U.S. Supreme Court. But that hasn’t stopped some judges from ordering a pay-or-stay sentence, especially in District Court.
“We’re thrilled … and we’ve been working toward this goal for more than five years,” said Michael Steinberg, legal director at the Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We applaud the Michigan Supreme Court for acting to end the shameful practice.”
The proposed rule says a judge cannot send someone to jail for failing to pay a fine unless the judge determines that the defendant can afford it without significant hardship. Judges could come up with a payment plan or waive all or part of the money owed.
Judges can consider job status, available cash and basic living expenses. The Supreme Court is accepting public comment until March 1.
Pay-or-stay practices have been in the headlines. The ACLU has accused a judge in Eastpointe of repeatedly sending people to jail if they couldn’t afford to pay a fine. Steinberg and an attorney for Judge Carl Gerds III have been told to try to reach a settlement.
“It’s ingrained in the culture of the county,” Macomb County Circuit Judge James Maceroni said in November, referring to local district courts.
In April, a group of Michigan experts, including many judges, published a report that said jail should be considered only when someone with the ability to pay fails to do so.
“Judges are under great pressure to generate revenue” for local governments, said Bob Gillett, director of the Michigan Advocacy Project, which oversees statewide legal service programs for people with low income.
A Detroit suburb, Hazel Park, the home of 43rd District Court, opposes the proposed rule.
“Individuals charged with a crime often have sources of income that are not reported,” the City Council said.
Judge Charles Goedert of 43rd District Court would like to see community service added as an alternative if someone can’t pay a fine.