Michigan’s Supreme Court has proposed new regulations to determine if defendants can afford to pay court fines, which would strengthen widely disregarded laws against jailing people who cannot pay them without hardship, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Critics say the hodgepodge system for determining a person’s ability to pay has created modern-day debtors’ prisons, which were outlawed in the early 1800s, and essentially resulted in a “pay or stay” system. 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.
NPR has reported that judges across the U.S. have adopted different standards for determining someone’s ability to pay, creating unequal and often inaccurate rules that flout the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1983 ruling that judges may not imprison someone who “willfully” refuses to pay a court fee or fine. In the Michigan case, the court says judges should adopt standard criteria to assess a defendant’s ability to pay, considering employment, cash, and living expenses. They will accept public comment until March 1. “We're thrilled,” Michael Steinberg of the American Civil Liberties Union told the Associated Press. “We applaud the Michigan Supreme Court for acting to end the shameful practice.”