The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging “pay or stay” sentences imposed on five persons across the state who were illegally jailed for being too poor to pay court fines.
In each instance, the judge failed to hold a hearing that would prove the individual was too poor to pay, or give the defendant the option of a payment plan or community service.
“Long thought to be a relic of the 19th century, debtors’ prisons are still alive and well in Michigan,” said Kary Moss, the ACLU of Michigan’s executive director. “Jailing our clients because they are poor is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources.
"Our justice system should be a place where freedom has no price and equality prevails regardless of a defendant’s economic status.”
The announcement is the result of a nearly two-year investigation into modern-day debtors' prisons in Michigan. Over the last two weeks, ACLU attorneys witnessed district and circuit court judges dole out “pay or stay” sentences in seven counties - Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Montcalm, Muskegon, Kent and Ionia. The ACLU’s clients represent dozens of poor defendants who are being jailed at increasingly alarming rates for failing to pay legal debts they cannot afford.
The U.S. and Michigan constitutions forbid debtors’ prisons and the jailing of individuals who cannot pay court fines and fees because they are poor.
“In the face of mounting budget deficits, states are aggressively targeting poor people, and minorities often bear the burden,” said Elora Mukherjee, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “These modern-day debtors' prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and create a two-tiered justice system.”
Too poor to pay
The ACLU is challenging the sentences of five individuals who were jailed for being too poor to pay fines, fees and costs related to criminal offenses. Although each defendant is willing to pay fees over time on a payment plan or perform community service, the judges never gave this option. As of today, two individuals have been released as a result of the ACLU’s intervention.
• Kyle Dewitt, 19, was sentenced to three days in jail by Judge Raymond Voet of the 64A District Court in Ionia because he is unemployed and unable to pay $215 in fees related to a ticket for catching a fish out of season. After ACLU intervention, Dewitt was released from Ionia County Jail on Wednesday pending a trial.
• Kristen Preston, 19, was sentenced to 30 days in jail by Judge Voet because she could not afford to pay a $125 alcohol assessment fee stemming from a minor in possession (MIP) charge. On Wednesday, Preston was released after ACLU intervention. She awaits sentencing for the MIP charge.
• Dorian Bellinger, 22, was sentenced to 13 days in jail by Judge Robert Brzezinski of the 16th District Court in Livonia because he could not afford to pay $425 in fines and costs related to a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge.
• Dontae Smith, 19, was sentenced to 41 days in jail by Judge Joseph Longo of the 43rd District Court in Ferndale because he could not afford to pay $415 in connection to several driving offenses, including driving with a suspended license and impeding traffic.
• David Clark, 30, was sentenced to 90 days in jail by Judge Randy Kalmbach of the 27th District Court in Wyandotte because he could not afford to pay $1,250 in fees and costs related to charges for spanking his girlfriend’s son on the buttock. Clark’s girlfriend was charged with the same misdemeanor offense; however, her parents paid her costs, and she was therefore not jailed.
In 2010, Michigan was among the states featured in an ACLU report, “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons.” The report detailed the way courts, in the face of budget cuts, target poor people who have already served their criminal sentences to pay fines or face jail time.
While many judges view the collection of legal debt as a critical revenue stream, there is no evidence such sentences increase revenue, as the costs of incarcerating indigent defendants for failing to pay generally exceed the amount owed.