Those who could not pay stayed

Graham Jaehnig/Daily Mininggazette The halls of the Houghton County Courthouse can be terrifying when offenders are faced with jail sentences in addition to fines and costs they know they cannot afford.

HOUGHTON — Until last year, people too poor to pay their fines, costs and other legal expenses were permitted under Michigan law to be jailed.

In March 2016, the Justice Department issued new guidelines to state and municipal court systems aimed at preventing indigent defendants from being jailed because they cannot afford to pay fines for minor infractions, stated a March 14, 2016, CNN report.

“Among the practices Justice Department officials are trying to stop is the use of court fines and assessments primarily as a source of revenue by some municipalities,” the report stated.

“Critics say that the hodgepodge system for determining a person’s ability to pay has created a modern-day version of debtors’ prisons, which were outlawed in the early 1800s, and essentially resulted in a ‘pay or stay’ system,” wrote Molly Jackson in a January 2016 Christian Science Monitor article. “People who cannot afford fines for arrests, tickets or court fees often wind up in jail, where they accrue more costs, while they are prevented from earning money. Michigan Supreme Court cracks down on ‘pay or stay’ imprisonment.”

Houghton County, however, has not had a policy of issuing warrants on people for not paying fines or other expenses, largely because they cannot afford to pay them.

“If they’re not paying, it’s generally because they don’t have the money,” said Mark Wisti, judge for 97th District Court.

Houghton County Sheriff Brian McLean has seen the negative effects of forcing people to pay fines when they do not possess the means to do so.

“We get some of these young kids in here that are just disoriented, they just don’t know where they’re going, and you slap them with a $1,500 bill, that follows them around for years,” McLean said. “You know how hard it is to pay off $1,500? It takes forever. That’s a big hammer. It’s like bringing your car (for repairs) and finding out you have to pay $1,000 to get it back, because that’s what the auto repairs are, and if it’s anything under $1,000, you’re happy. You’re dirt poor all the time because of expenses.”

Wisti agreed that it is the younger population who suffers the most severely under Michigan past pay-or-stay policy.

“As an example, you’ll get a lot of these kids and they’re just immature, and they don’t pay a speeding ticket or something along those lines,” Wisti said. “They owe $140 bucks on a speeding ticket, so they get their license suspended because they didn’t (pay) that. So if they come in, if they get nailed for driving with the license suspended, they’re going to get another year’s suspension and another $500 for the next two years from the secretary of state. And that seems kind of draconian just for being an idiot kid.”