Eastpointe’s only judge has been ordered to stop jailing poor defendants simply for failing to pay court fines and fees — a practice the American Civil Liberties Union called a good first step toward ending a practice said to be common across the state.
In an order issued Tuesday, the Macomb County Circuit Court said Judge Carl Gerds of 38th District Court would have to halt “pay or stay” sentencing. The ACLU sued Gerds last year, arguing he routinely jailed people for failing to pay minor tickets and court fees.
“We are relieved to know that defendants in Eastpointe no longer have to worry about landing in what amounts to illegal debtors’ prisons,” Michael J. Steinberg, the ACLU Michigan legal director, said in a statement. Steinberg also said the court order “upholds a basic principle of fairness in our nation — that nobody should be jailed just because he or she is too poor to pay fines, fees and costs.”
The ACLU first challenged the judge in July by filing a lawsuit on behalf of a woman facing jail time because she failed to license her dogs and failed to appear in court. The woman, a single mother of two young children who receives government assistance, was unable to pay the $455 in fines Gerds ordered. In court filings, Gerds' attorney said Gerds was never going to send the woman to jail; the attorney also has said Gerds was following court rules.
Yet the ACLU pointed to Supreme Court precedent, arguing that judges can’t simply jail someone for being poor. A judge needs to gauge a defendant’s ability to pay and then develop a payment plan if the defendant can’t pay up-front, or come up with a sentence such as one involving community service.
Despite that precedent, Michigan judges — it's not clear how many — regularly issue "pay or stay" sentences anyway, partly because the rules established by the Michigan Supreme Court had been silent on the issue, said Daniel Korobkin, deputy legal director of the ACLU in Michigan.
The state’s Supreme Court is considering new rules to address the issue, but there is no clear time line as to when those rules could be implemented. The court has issued proposed new rules — and those are almost exactly what Gerds was ordered Tuesday to follow.
“We hope that this is really just a precursor to this new rule being adopted statewide,” Korobkin said. He added: “I think this (is) really a model for what needs to happen in other courts to prevent people from being sent to jail because they’re poor.”