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Detroit Legal Blog

Michigan Will No Longer Impose Pay or Stay Sentences

Jun 29, 2016, by Maurice Davis in Criminal Defense, Legal Blog

In May of this year, the Michigan Supreme Court voted to put an end to a controversial practice occurring within the state’s criminal courts. Some Michigan defendants who were unable to pay fines or court fees were getting sentenced to jail. These so-called “pay or stay” sentences recalls debtors prisons, which have been illegal since the 19th century.

According to a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, judges may only sentence to jail defendants who cannot pay fines only when they “willfully” refuse to pay a court fee or fine. But in Michigan’s criminal courts, may poor people convicted of committing crimes have been sentenced to jail when their inability to pay was based on their lack of financial resources.

Take for example Donna Anderson, an Eastpointe resident who was convicted of having unlicensed dogs. Eastepointe Judge Carl Gerds II ordered her to pay a $445 fine, which she couldn’t pay. She was facing the possibility of spending time behind bars when the ACLU took on her case, which she eventually won.

Pay or Stay Sentences are Bad Policy, Unjust, and Impractical

At a time when Michigan is suffering from budgetary constraints, the government has been seeking to reduce its prison and jail populations. New sentencing guidelines and rehabilitative programs have been implemented to reduce the number of criminal defendants being sent to jail, especially for nonviolent offenders. In this context, pay or stay sentences such as the ones used by Judge Gert, stand out as a step backwards from a policy standpoint.

Furthermore, pay or stay sentences unfairly target the poor. A wealthy person will never have to go to jail because of his or her inability to pay fines or court costs. But poorer people may find themselves contemplating jail sentences anytime they’re ordered to pay a fine.

It’s unacceptable for the criminal justice system—which is supposed to be impartial—to dole out such different sentences based on the defendants’ financial resources. According to Miriam Aukerman, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney, “Being poor isn’t a crime and shouldn’t condemn you to serving jail time that someone with means can pay to avoid.”

Finally, pay or stay sentences don’t make sense from a practical standpoint. A person who is sentenced to jail for being unable to pay a fine will not be in a position to make money while he or she is locked up. Instead, the defendant should be allowed to remain free and make money to pay the fine. With pay or stay sentences, governments not only have to pay for the inmate’s incarceration, they also ensure the inmate will be unable to ever pay the fine.

What Can the Government Do to Ensure Defendants Pay their Fines?

Starting on September 1, 2016, Michigan judges will no longer be able to use jail sentences to coerce criminal defendants into paying their fines. But even before then, it’s likely the practice will end. For example, Judge Gerd agreed to stop the practice earlier this year.

In place of pay or stay sentences, what can the government do to ensure that defendants pay their fines? Under the new rules, judges will determine defendants’ ability to pay fines and court costs based on their job status, assets, living expenses, and personal circumstances. Where defendants demonstrate a “manifest hardship” the court will allow them to pay their fees and court costs under a payment plan.

How a Detroit Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help You

At Davis Law Group, we are committed to serving the cause of social justice by helping Michigan’s citizens confront the criminal justice system. Our goal is to ensure that your rights are respected and that you get the best case outcome possible under your circumstances. If you’re facing criminal charges and need a Detroit criminal defense lawyer, call us today at (313) 818-3238 for a free and confidential case consultation.