What happens when defendants are too poor to pay fines?

By Amy Huber, Editor –

Do the crime, pay the fine.

Yet, not being able to do so is an important issue in Muskegon County, where one-third

of those being held in local jails have an income of less than $15,000 a year.

That was the focus on a recet public discussion on “Too Poor to Pay: Debtors’ Prison,”

the latest offering of MCC’s ongoing “…And Justice for All” series..

Panel members included Raymond Kostrzewa, chief judge of Muskegon’s 60 th District

Court; D.J. Hilson, Muskegon County prosecutor; Heather Garretson, law professor, formerly

with the U.S. Attorney’s Office; and Chad Catalino, supervising attorney of the Misdemeanor

Division of the Muskegon County Public Defender’s Office.

Mediator was Andy Wible of MCC’s Philosophy department.

The panel addressed the issue that being poor often means defendants do not have an

attorney for their case.

They also addressed the consequences of bail, tickets, fines, and plea bargaining

sentences on the poor in the American court system.

So how do the judges expect poor defendants to pay fines?

Panel members explained that a lot of research has been done before the judge actually

sees the defendant at arraignment.

The judge then asks several questions, dealing with such aspects are employment to

living arrangements, which also factor into the eventual amount of the fine. Judges tend to set

fines in accordance with what defendants are capable of paying.

“It doesn’t do any good to fine people when they don’t have any money,” said Garretson.

“Those are fines that they just can’t afford to pay.”

However, defendants who have not been found guilty of an offense are not fined. This

includes people incarcerated before their trial. In Michigan 41 percent of people in jail are

awaiting trial.

“In Newaygo County, 78 percent of people in jail are pretrial detainees, 31 percent in

Kent County” said Garretson. “It cost 500,000 a day in Michigan to put people who have not

been convicted of a crime in jail.”

The panel also discussed bail and poor defendants.

Bail is seldom denied, but by law does have to be in certain instance, which include,

treason, a murder that includes a kidnapping, and criminal sexual conduct where the defendant is

considered at risk of committing another crime while awaiting trial.

Judge Kostrzewa said many factors are taken into account when determining bail for a

defendant. When deciding on how to set bail, a judge will consider several risk factors.

These include:Prior criminal history, strength of the case, the current charge, record of flight,

history of substance abuse, mental status, employment/financial history, availability of a

family/community member to monitor defendant and assure he or she will show up in court, and

any other risks bearing on danger to public.

“We don’t have a perfect system, but we do have the best system in the world,” said

Kostrzewa, “Can it be improved? You bet, but it’s run by humans.”

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