Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons

May 25, 2016

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, until recently, numerous judges throughout Michigan were jailing poor people on “pay or stay” sentences—sentences where individuals who are found guilty of a crime are sent to jail if they cannot immediately pay large fines and costs imposed by the court.  In order to document and draw attention to this problem, the ACLU of Michigan has engaged in repeated court-watching efforts and has appealed pay-or-stay sentences for indigent individuals in select cases that typify the problem. 

In July 2015 we filed a lawsuit asking an appellate court to take “superintending control” of the district court in Eastpointe, which routinely imposed pay or stay sentences; that case was resolved in March 2016 when the lower court judge agreed to an order prohibiting the practice.  In October 2015 we also wrote to the Department of Justice calling for an investigation after David Stojcevski died in the Macomb County Jail where he was incarcerated because he was too poor to pay $772 in fines associated with traffic tickets. 

All of these ongoing efforts to end debtors’ prisons have been part of a larger campaign for new court rules requiring hearings on a person’s ability to pay before the individual can be sent to jail for non-payment.

In May 2016, after years of advocacy by the ACLU and other groups, the Michigan Supreme Court adopted new rules requiring such hearings.  We will now be monitoring compliance with those standards.

(People v. Rockett; People v. Milton; In re Anderson; ACLU Attorneys Miriam Aukerman, Dan Korobkin and Michael J. Steinberg, and Legal Fellow Sofia Nelson.)

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

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