The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday filed a petition with a Michigan district court for the 38th District of Macomb County to stop a Detroit-area judge from issuing jail sentences for minor infractions that place an unfair economic burden on poor and minority residents.
The civil rights group argues that a judge at the 38th District Court in Eastpointe has been handing down jail sentences when residents cannot pay fines for minor offenses, such as jaywalking. ACLU petition asks Macomb County Circuit Court to place “superintending control” over Judge Carl Gerds III, so that he is kept from issuing sentences without first determining whether defendants have the economic means to pay the fines. A writ of superintending control would give more authority to the circuit court over the district court.
“If somebody is too poor to pay, then they’re going to jail simply because of their poverty,” said Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan.
Sentences typically run at about a day of incarceration for every $10 in fines, Steinberg said, whereas jailing a person for a day costs the county about $90. The incarceration experience, he added, typically convinces a defendant’s family to provide enough money to free their relative.
The ACLU is not arguing there should be no consequences for people who have broken the law. But Steinberg said there are alternatives to “stay or pay” sentences, such as community service or graduated repayment plans.
“It is certainly fundamentally unfair to fund city operations on the backs of those least able to afford it by aggressively collecting fines from people living in over-policed neighborhoods — people who are disproportionately poor and of color,” ACLU legal fellow Sofia Nelson wrote in July, when the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request related to this issue.
In 2013 and 2014, Eastpointe collected roughly $2 million in fines and fees, or around 11 percent of its operating budget, Nelson said.
The ACLU motion was sparked by the case of a woman, Donna Anderson, who could not pay a $300 fine for owning an unlicensed dog in April 2015. She has not been sent to jail.
An ACLU complaint in July first singled out Gerds as a "pay or stay" judge. Steinberg said Gerds “is a repeat offender and he basically was thumbing his nose at the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court.”
In a letter responding to the July motion, Gerds said he denied the superintending control by Macomb County Circuit Court was necessary.
“Moreover, Judge Gerds has stopped imposing any sentence remotely resembling 'pay or stay' for any criminal defendant who is with, or without, means to pay the requisite fines and costs,” Gerds said in the letter, referring to himself in the third person.
"Judge Gerds now conducts an individualized inquiry into each criminal defendant’s ability to pay and allows good-faith payment plans toward satisfaction of fees and costs,” the letter continued.
Gerds’ letter states that “wild and unfounded speculation” is the basis for the request for a superintending order. The 38th District Court did not respond to a request for comment.