Could Washtenaw County eliminate court system fines and fees? Work has started

WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI — Washtenaw County doesn’t want to fund its justice system with fines and fees that can potentially spell financial ruin for families living paycheck to paycheck.

Authorities are now embarking on an effort to eliminate penalties and surcharges associated with the court system, including county jail booking fees, costs associated with electronic monitoring of those on probation, and attorney fees before the courts, county spokeswoman Crystal Campbell said.

“We know things happen. People make mistakes. There is always a cost for the consequences, but this cost should not be an undue burden. Families should not suffer the burden of prolonged or excessive charges,” Campbell said.

County officials from a range of offices join a new group of six local governments across the country as part of the national Cities and Counties for Justice Fines and Fees initiative, a program offering technical assistance and strategic advice to local elected officials wishing to reform sanctions and pecuniary charges.

Across the country, fines for tickets and minor infractions, plus added court and court system fees, can have compounded consequences for those who cannot afford them, according to the Fees and Fines. Justice Center, a national organization. advocacy group running the program.

“For low-income residents, a cascade of consequences occurs when they cannot pay: their debt increases, their license is suspended, their credit score drops, their economic opportunities are reduced and, in some places, they are arrested and imprisoned. Nobody wins in this situation,” said Priya Sarathy Jones, director of campaigns and policy at the center, in A declaration.

Cities already involved in the effort launched a series of efforts to ease this burden.

Providence, RI, helped residents negotiate debt to get driver’s licenses reinstated while Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, passed a budget that provided an allotted number of free phone calls for incarcerated people, while eliminating surcharges on the prison police station, according to a program report.

Washtenaw County’s intent is to investigate and eliminate court system fines and fees not required by state law as much as possible, Campbell said.

Officials will launch a comprehensive budget analysis that will put those costs to residents under the microscope, with recommendations for reform emerging from that effort, she said.

“We can and will keep our budget whole while helping families avoid the cycles of poverty associated with coming into contact with our justice system,” Washtenaw County Administrator Gregory Dill said in a statement.

The initiative, spearheaded by the county’s Office of Racial Equity, will loop officials from county administration, the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, the treasurer’s office, the sheriff’s office and the court of first instance.

This will complement ongoing efforts within these offices to reduce the burden of fines and fees imposed on residents who are struggling, according to Campbell. Last year, for example, Sheriff Jerry Clayton, with the support of county leaders, announced that more than $500,000 in inmate debt related to services and fees at the Washtenaw County Jail would be forgiven.

Read more: Michigan sheriff forgives more than $500,000 in jail debts owed by past and current inmates

“We also know that incarceration can seriously compromise a person’s ability to generate income, leading to even more debt. It’s that absurd cycle, with reincarceration, that we’re focused on,” Clayton said at the time.

Washtenaw County will join counties and cities in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Delaware and Kansas in the cohort, the second since the program launched in 2020. It is led in part by the City and County of San Francisco Financial Justice Projectwhich bills itself as the first integrated effort in a local government to tackle the burden of fines and fees.

Since launching in 2016, the West Coast Metropolis has eliminated many “high pain, low gain” fees.

“We can balance our budgets in a sensible way that is not on the backs of the less fortunate people in our communities,” San Francisco Treasurer José Cisneros said in a statement attached to a press release announcing the new group. local jurisdictions undertaking similar actions. efforts.

How dependent is the Washtenaw County court system on money from fines and fees?

That’s an open question that needs to be answered by the research and analysis that officials will undertake with the support of the national program, Campbell said.

“We know we have a few courts that are quite heavily reliant on these fines and fees, and what that creates is a problem where we have to fine people so that we can run our operations, and we really need to move on. away from that model,” she said.

The result could be “transformational change” to a system that has negatively and disproportionately affected the poor, black people and people of color, county racial equity officer Alize Asberry Payne said in a statement. communicated.

There’s no set timeline for the work county officials are undertaking to change the system, though the spot in the national cohort will last at least into next year, Campbell said.

“It’s a long game, it’s not a strategy or a short-term fix,” she said. “It’s something we want to incorporate into the way we operate.”

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