Court system can cost an individual thousands

HOUGHTON — Court costs, legal fees, fines, jail bills, probationary costs, jury fees — and all other expenses associated with processing through the court system, can cost an individual into the thousands of dollars.

In a year-long investigation, National Public Radio conducted a survey that found that defendants are charged for many government services that were once free, including those that are constitutionally required. These charges are paying for the operations and functioning of the court house, including salaries of court house personnel.

Judge Mark Wisti, 97th District Court, said that while the courts are considered an entity of the state of Michigan, they are not funded by the state. The courts are just one more unfunded mandate required by the state Legislature, to be funded by the counties.

“To pay for that, these costs are imposed and I (recently) looked at the raw numbers…and I think we’re a little bit under,” Wisti said. “We’re basically even. Some years it’s a little over, some years it’s a little down, but basically, the fees and costs do pay for the court system.”

While the court system is not covered under the Headlee Amendment, the state has illegally denied millions of dollars to local governments through reductions in constitutionally guaranteed revenue sharing. Revenue sharing that could have put the county in a better position to at least pay its court personnel.

In fact, after a two-year study, the Michigan Legislative Commission on Statutory Mandates issued a report in 2009 that stated, “Our findings paint a stark picture of non-compliance with Article 9, Sec. 29 of the Michigan Constitution of 1963, as amended,” stretching back 31 years.

The report found that Michigan has imposed more than $2 billion in unfunded mandates on local units of government in 2009 alone, ranging from housing juvenile delinquents to funding pensions for school employees to tuition waivers for Native Americans, in violation of the Headlee Amendment.

“Yet the (state’s) failure to comply with the Headlee Amendment and to comply with this implementing legislation has no direct, or even indirect, penalty associated with it,” the report states. “In fact, since the imposition of the mandates on local government, without funding, can occur with impunity there is no reason or advantage by people at the state level not to do so.”