Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons

January 01, 2015

The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that it is unconstitutional to jail a person for failure to pay a debt that she or he cannot afford. However, the ACLU of Michigan has documented through repeated court watching efforts since 2011 that numerous judges throughout Michigan are jailing poor people on “pay or stay” sentences—sentences where individuals who are found guilty of a crime are given the “choice” of immediately paying their fines and costs or going to jail.

In order to draw attention to this problem, the ACLU has represented indigent individuals throughout the state in appealing their pay-or-stay sentences in select cases that typify the problem. For example, in September 2014 the ACLU represented a Jenna Palmer, a Port Huron woman who was unable to pay fines related to driving without a license. The court did not hold a hearing to see if Ms. Palmer had the ability to pay. Instead, when Ms. Palmer went to the emergency room after fleeing an abusive relationship, she was arrested and jailed for the unpaid fines. After the ACLU intervened, she released from jail, moved to a domestic violence shelter, and placed on a workable payment plan.

We have also worked with local and national media outlets to expose the practice, resulting in a widely-heard NPR series profiling several ACLU clients. In August 2013 we also filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Michigan Court of Appeals to address the constitutionality of incarcerating the poor based on their inability to pay. The ACLU is now building support for a new court rule that would ban the practice.

(People v. Palmer and People v. Bailey; ACLU Attorneys Miriam Aukerman, Dan Korobkin, Brooke Tucker and Michael J. Steinberg, and Legal Fellow Sofia Nelson; Cooperating Attorney Elizabeth Geary.)

To view the full 2014-2015 Legal Docket, click here.

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