ACLU Helps Michigan Defendants Challenge “Pay or Stay” Penalties


Kyle Dewitt, an unemployed 19-year old, spent three days in a Michigan jail in May when he couldn’t pay a $215 ticket for catching a smallmouth bass out of season. Dewitt is one of five Michigan residents the American Civil Liberties Union says are victims of pay or stay — the practice of some judges to lock up misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford to pay their fines, says the Detroit Free Press. “Long thought to be a relic of the 19th Century, debtors’ prisons are still alive and well in Michigan,” said state ACLU Director Kary Moss. The ACLU is helping Dewitt and the others challenge their court sentences. “Jailing our clients because they are poor is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources,” Moss said.

Judges failed to conduct a hearing to determine whether the defendants were too poor to pay, whether they could pay in installments, or whether they should be sentenced instead to community service, Moss said. Ionia County Prosecutor Ron Schafer disagrees, saying Dewitt “is an able-bodied high school dropout who came up with the money to buy all of his fishing gear, tackle and his license. But now he can’t come up with $215 to pay his fine [ ] the general Michigan citizen is going to say, ‘Wait a minute. Is he someone who doesn’t have the means to pay, or chooses not to pay?’ “

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