Rethink passing court costs to defendants

Madelaine Lane

When criminal defendants are sentenced by Michigan state courts, they face more than the possibility of imprisonment or making restitution to their victims: They must also pay court costs.

These costs can include some of the salaries for bailiffs and clerks, paying a portion of the heating or light bill for the courthouse — and even the expense of providing a “free” court-appointed lawyer to those who can’t afford one. These costs can add hundreds of dollars of expense to members of our society who can least afford it.

The statute authorizing defendants to pay these costs is set to expire in 2017.

Before deciding whether to renew this law, the Michigan Legislature should consider the impact this cost has on criminal defendants, as well as alternatives that can help defendants escape the burden of this debt.

Imposing these costs on criminal defendants certainly has a deterrent effect, which is one of the purposes of sentencing.

Admittedly, some criminal statutes specifically authorize the court to charge the defendant the cost of the prosecution. But defendants bear the total cost of paying restitution to victims, probation expenses or other mandatory state fees.

However, the added cost of maintaining the lights in the courthouse can significantly add to a defendant’s bill.

Defendants who do not, or cannot, pay wind up having additional fines tacked on to their bills and may spend longer in jail, lose their driver’s license or violate terms of their probation. The cycle quickly becomes endless — and hopeless.

The optics of shifting the burden of financing the criminal justice system to defendants, rather than taxpayers, is immensely troubling.

This is especially true when the discretion regarding what, if any, court costs to impose on a defendant rests in the hands of the very system set to benefit from this funding source.

Balancing the goal of deterrence and the real world reality of saddling defendants with this significant debt can be difficult.

I encourage the Legislature to consider an alternative program similar to the Michigan Secretary of State’s Driver Responsibility Fee Community Service Program. Allow defendants to either pay these court costs or “pay” the debt by volunteering at an approved nonprofit.

Defendants would not be escaping this important part of their sentence, and the community at large is still benefitting.

Madelaine Lane is a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP, Grand Rapids.