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ACLU sues Michigan over ‘pay or stay’ prison sentences

The ACLU of Michigan announced Thursday that it is challenging what they call “pay or stay” sentences that put people in jail if they’re too poor to pay court costs in a criminal case.

Daniel James
News
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Aug 04, 2011

The ACLU of Michigan announced Thursday that it is challenging what they call “pay or stay” sentences that put people in jail if they’re too poor to pay court costs in a criminal case. In a press release the group noted five such cases in the state and said:

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.

“Long thought to be a relic of the 19th century, debtors’ prisons are still alive and well in Michigan,” said Kary Moss, the ACLU of Michigan’s executive director. “Jailing our clients because they are poor is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources. Our justice system should be a place where freedom has no price and equality prevails regardless of a defendant’s economic status.”

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.

“In the face of mounting budget deficits, states are aggressively targeting poor people, and minorities often bear the burden,” said Elora Mukherjee, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “These modern-day debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and create a two-tiered justice system.”

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.

Daniel James | Daniel James is an author, keynote speaker, and entrepreneur who is a professional coach and gerontologist. Daniel holds a bachelor's degree from Georgia Tech, a master's degree from UCLA, a diploma in gerontology from the University of Boston, as well as a Professional Coaching Certification.

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