The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan said today that they are challenging “pay or stay” sentences imposed on five persons across the state who were illegally jailed for being too poor to pay court fines.
In each instance, the judge failed to hold a hearing that would prove the individual was too poor to pay, or give the defendant the option of a payment plan or community service.
Today’s announcement is the result of a nearly two-year investigation into modern-day debtors’ prisons in Michigan. Over the last two weeks, ACLU attorneys witnessed district and circuit court judges dole out “pay or stay” sentences in seven counties – Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Montcalm, Muskegon, Kent and Ionia. The ACLU’s clients represent dozens of poor defendants who are being jailed at increasingly alarming rates for failing to pay legal debts they cannot afford.
The U.S. and Michigan constitutions forbid debtors’ prisons and the jailing of individuals who cannot pay court fines and fees because they are poor.
The ACLU is challenging the sentences of five individuals who were jailed for being too poor to pay fines, fees and costs related to criminal offenses. Although each defendant is willing to pay fees over time on a payment plan or perform community service, the judges never gave this option. As of today, two individuals have been released as a result of the ACLU’s intervention.