Judge Must Release Woman Sentenced to Jail for Being Poor, ACLU Says in Court Papers

March 30, 2009

UPDATE: (March 31, 2009) The ACLU of Michigan is happy to announce that Edwina Nowlin was released today after being represented by the ACLU at  an emergency hearing in Delta County Probate Court.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked for an emergency hearing today on behalf of an Escanaba woman sentenced to 30 days in jail because she is too poor to reimburse the court for her son’s stay in a juvenile detention facility.

“Like many people in these desperate economic times, Ms. Nowlin was laid off from work, lost her home and is destitute,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director. “Jailing her because of her poverty is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources. It is not a crime to be poor in this country and the government must stop resurrecting debtor’s prisons from the dustbin of history.”

In December 2008, Ms. Nowlin’s 16-year-old son was sentenced to the Bay Pines Center and Ms. Nowlin was ordered to pay $104 per month for his lodging. At the time of this order, Ms. Nowlin was homeless and working part-time with a friend after being laid off from her job. She told the court that she was unable to pay the ordered amount, however the judge found her in contempt for failing to pay. In addition, Ms. Nowlin’s requests for a court appointed attorney were denied.

Since March 3, 2009, Ms. Nowlin has been serving her sentence at the Delta County Jail. On March 6, 2009, she was released for one day to work. Once released she picked up her $178.53 check from work thinking that she now could pay the $104.00 to get out of jail. However, upon her return to jail that evening, the sheriff forced her to sign over her check to the jail to cover $120.00 for “room and board.” She was also charged $22 for a drug test and the booking fee.

According to the ACLU’s motion: “This country did away with debtors’ prisons more than a century ago. The imprisonment of Ms. Nowlin because she is too destitute to make payments to the court is a miscarriage of justice.”

In representing Ms. Nowlin, the ACLU of Michigan argues that the court unconstitutionally sentenced Ms. Nowlin to a debtors’ prison without assessing her ability to pay the court. Additionally, the court violated her rights by denying her request for a court appointed lawyer.

Recently, the ACLU of Michigan represented David Sutton of Detroit whose probation was extended because he could not afford his supervision fees. Mr. Sutton has no assets and his only income is the $262 monthly disability check he receives from the government. In 2003, Sutton was sentenced to probation for a year following a conviction in Wayne County Circuit Court. He performed community service and fulfilled all the conditions of his probation except one – he was not able to pay the supervision fee. Consequently, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge extended his probation year after year. In February, the ACLU successfully represented him at a hearing where the state had moved to revoke his probation once again.

In addition to Steinberg, Ms. Nowlin is represented by Karl Numinen of Pence and Numinen, P.C. in Marquette.

To see the brief filed on behalf of Ms. Nowlin, click here.

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