Convicts will continue to be hit with court operating costs in Michigan

Posted at 5:53 AM, Sep 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-18 05:53:06-04

DETROIT (AP) — People convicted of crimes will continue to pay millions of dollars a year to keep the lights on in Michigan courts, along with other operating costs, under a law signed Thursday by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Whitmer signed a two-year extension of a law that gives judges the power to put additional financial burdens on people in courts, mostly the poor. She also urged the Legislature to come up with a new system that “does not come at the cost of judicial independence and individual rights.”

A commission in 2019 recommended major changes in how courts are financed, but the issue hasn’t gained enough traction yet in the Capitol. Without an extension, the current law would have expired in October.

On top of fines and restitution, people convicted of crimes can be ordered to pay a share of a court’s operating costs, such as staff salaries, utilities and other services. Someone who is acquitted doesn’t get a bill for overhead, nor do parties in a civil lawsuit.

More than $120 million has been collected statewide since 2016, mostly in District Court, the ground level of justice in Michigan, which handles traffic tickets, drunken driving cases and other misdemeanors.

The extension easily won approval in the Republican-controlled Legislature and was supported by local governments that operate courts and want the money.

Without the extension, “trial courts will face a financial emergency. ... We recognize it is certainly not the final solution,” the Michigan Association of Counties told lawmakers.

Critics, including some judges, said the current system puts judges in the awkward position of using the courts to raise money.

The Michigan Supreme Court in 2019 said the scheme was legal, although Chief Justice Bridget McCormack acknowledged problems.

“Assigning judges to play tax collector erodes confidence in the judiciary and may seriously jeopardize a defendant’s right to a neutral and detached magistrate,” McCormack said