Debtors' prisons were abolished long ago, but the ACLU of Michigan says some district judges in Michigan never got the memo.
ACLU attorney Sofia Nelson says a recent case shows just how wrong things can go for people who can't afford to pay their fines.
Victim went to jail instead of a domestic violence shelter
In September, Nelson says a Port Huron woman fled to her local emergency room after her boyfriend threatened her with a gun.
The incident was the last of a string of beatings and threats that kept the woman nearly captive in their home for months.
(The woman's name is being withheld because she fears retribution from her boyfriend.)
ER staff called the police, who took down the complaint. They followed up by arresting the perpetrator.
But they also arrested the victim on outstanding bench warrants issued by 72nd District Judge Cynthia Platzer.
It turns out, the victim had been cited twice for driving without a license.
At her arraignment the next day, the victim mentioned the abuse.
"But she also articulated that she had been using illegal substances," says Nelson. "And I think the judge grabbed onto that and didn't listen to the rest of the explanation."
Judge Platzer sentenced her to six months in jail for failing to pay her fines.
No indigency hearing? That's unconstitutional
Seven days later, the ACLU of Michigan took the woman's case. At a hearing before Judge Platzer, the woman agreed to a payment plan for her fines and was released.
"I can't think of a worse environment for her. If we hadn't intervened, she would have spent six months in jail," says Nelson.
Nelson says the victim in this case had no job and no money. She'd tried to get a job, but her boyfriend beat her for the attempt.
But there was no hearing on the victim's ability to pay her fines.
"The Supreme Court said in the 1983 Bearden v. Georgia case, nobody can be incarcerated for failure to pay legal financial obligations," says Nelson, "unless they're in willful non-payment, meaning that they have the ability to pay and they chose not to. But that's exactly what didn't happen in this instance."
Not an isolated case
Nelson says the ACLU has had to step in numerous times in Michigan in recent years to keep an indigent person from going to jail merely because they couldn't afford to pay their fines.
She says it's unconstitutional, and it's an ineffective use of court resources. "These are people who not only can't afford to pay, but you're also spending money to punish them for their poverty."
A work group at the State Court Administrative Offices is looking at the issue, and Nelson hopes the group will issue guidelines, with suggested alternatives for people who can't pay fines, such as community service or work crews.
But she says the state Legislature may also need to get involved with laws designed to curb the problem.