A new court rule is supposed to make sure judges in Michigan don’t put people in jail because they can’t afford to pay fines or fees.
The rule adopted by the Michigan Supreme Court gives judges more guidance on what to do when a defendant can’t pay. It also requires a judge to determine whether a defendant can’t pay, or is simply refusing to pay.
“So the court has to actually assess that question,” said Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. “And if the defendant is unable to comply with an order to pay, it has to consider some alternatives. “The courts have the authority to make a payment plan that works for the particular defendant,” she said. “They can modify an existing plan. They can waive part of the fees, or they can require some service in place of some of the fees that are owed.”
The US Supreme Court ruled three decades ago that jailing people because they can’t afford to pay a court-ordered debt is unconstitutional. Yet, studies have found it’s a common practice in Michigan courtrooms. There are at least two reported instances of people dying in Michigan jails while they were incarcerated for not paying fines. There are also instances of people losing their jobs or housing because they were jailed for being too poor to pay.
Miriam Aukerman is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. She says the new court rule is an important step toward laying that problem to rest. “For too long, we’ve had a two-tier system in this state, where those who can pay go free, and those are poor go to jail,” she said. “The size of your wallet should not determine the type of justice you get.”