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Court fine scandal in Ferguson could easily happen in Michigan

Feb 10, 2015

Credit David Trawin

The city of Ferguson, Mo., and another nearby town, Jennings, Mo., are the target of a new civil rights lawsuit aimed at what has been called modern day "debtors prison."

The lawsuit alleges citizens in Ferguson are routinely jailed because they can't pay fines associated with a wide range of minor infractions like unpaid parking tickets.  

These court fines total about $2.6 million and make up Ferguson's second largest revenue stream. The lawsuit says the practice is unconstitutional because the court doesn't consider if people are indigent before leveling fines they might be unable to pay. 

Constitutional or not, the unpaid fines and jail time can create a cycle from which many low-income people can't escape. We've known this to be true in Michigan for years. In Michigan, courts are supposed to make accommodations for indigent defendants-but they have a lot of latitude to decide exactly what indigent means.

Courts around the state rely on these fees and fines to pay for everything from their staff to the maintenance of their buildings. Court fines and fees also fund some innovative programs like "drug court" that can keep some people out of jail.

The Michigan Supreme Court tried to scale back the use of court fines in a decision last year. State lawmakers quickly wrote and passed legislation to return things to the status quo. 

In my reporting I've met several young people that struggle to pay fines for things like underage drinking while still in high school. Because 17 year olds in Michigan are charged as adults, it is conceivable they can be struggling to pay court fines the same year they are trying to graduate from school.

We'll continue to report on the effect of court fees on young offenders or on the families of juvenile offenders. If you have insight to share get in touch over social media or at alvarez@michiganradio.org