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Death in a Debtors' Prison
David Stojcevski died, gasping for breath, naked on the cement floor of his cell at the Macomb County Jail, while his jailors watched the life ebb out of him. 24-hour camera surveillance captured Mr. Stojcevski excruciatingly long death. The FBI is investigating. But even without the FBI report, we know that something went terribly wrong. A prisoner who is showing obvious signs of starvation, withdrawal and dehydration, should not slowly die on the jailhouse floor in full view of the cameras.
Still, the FBI report can tell us a lot about what happened at the jail, which is critical to ensuring this never happens again. What the FBI report probably won’t address--and why we've called for an expanded Justice Department investigation--is the fact that David Stojcevski should not have been in jail in the first place. Mr. Stojcevski had two traffic tickets and owed $772 in fines. The judge gave him a “pay-or-stay” sentence: pay $772 or go to jail for 30 days. A wealthier person would have paid, and been done with it. But Mr. Stojcevski is dead because he was too poor to pay $772.
Actually, it’s worse than that. If Mr. Stojcevski had had even a little money, he could have “bought” days off of his sentence at a rate of $32 a day. A Macomb County memo shows how much Mr. Stojcevski had to pay per day of freedom:
By June 17th, when Mr. Stojcevski had deteriorated to the point that he was placed in the jail’s mental health cell and the cameras started rolling, Mr. Stojcevski still owed $579. On June 27th, when he died, his freedom – and hence his life – could have been had for $257.
Over 30 years ago, the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to punish people more severely because they are poor. It is illegal for judges to impose “pay or stay” sentences without looking at ability to pay. But as Mr. Stojcevski’s case shows, Michiganders go to jail every day because they are poor. The reality is that Michigan has a two-tier justice system, which imposes fines on the wealthy and jail on the poor.
One of my very first cases as an ACLU attorney was that of Kyle Dewitt, an Ionia man who went to jail because he couldn’t pay $215 in fines for catching a fish out of season. Since then, we’ve fought the jailing of folks who couldn’t pay fines for jaywalking, dog license violations, and traffic tickets. But drawing attention to debtors’ prisons is not enough. We need to finally end the practice of jailing the poor because they are poor.
Jail has terrible consequences. David Stojcevski is not the first person to die while locked up on a “pay or stay” sentence. Christopher Drewek committed suicide in the same Macomb County jail while there on “pay or stay” sentence in 2010. Their deaths remind us that jails are awful places. Places where your physical and mental health needs go untreated. Places where you might not get the medication you need to stay alive. Not places we should put people because they are behind on paying off a fine.
I am glad that the FBI is investigating how Mr. Stojcevski died in the Macomb County Jail. But the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division should also investigate why he – and thousands of other Michiganders – end up in jail on “pay or stay” sentences in the first place. “Pay or stay” sentences are illegal. They are pervasive. And they must stop. No one should die for want of $32 a day.