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Gov. Whitmer extends court costs policy

Justice statue
Flickr user Jack
Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Courts in Michigan can continue requiring defendants found guilty of a crime to pay certain court costs associated with their trial for another year and a half.

That funding mechanism for local courts was set to expire, and is the subject of a court challenge arguing it's unfair and inequitable, but the governor recently signed an extension of the policy.

The Michigan Municipal League supported the law during the committee process.

Legislative associate Herasanna Richards said her group would like to see a more permanent funding source, though the issue is complicated.

“Our funding system is a little disjointed. Rather than having a centralized model in which the state would aggregate all the funding, distribute it as needed to different areas of the state based on operational needs that they have, many of the district courts are responsible for funding that on their own,” Richards said.

Through extending the sunset provision in the policy another 18 months, Richards said policymakers will more time to figure out a more equitable solution. She said she hopes that involves a restructuring of revenue sharing — a system in which state government shares part of its tax revenue with local governments.

“Public safety is probably the biggest aspect of local government that has struggled because of cuts to revenue sharing,” Richards said. “Where we make up for those investments has to happen somewhere else. And so we can directly correlate to how local government has been historically and in recent [past] funded, and how it puts us in a position of having to make really difficult choices, leveraging different opportunities for funding and those are the things we’re trying to correct.”

Analysis from the House Fiscal Agency suggests the current system provides tens of millions of dollars each year for local courts. And other organizations that supported HB 5956 during the committee process also saw it as another temporary step.

“The State Bar of Michigan supported HB 5956 as a stop-gap for the next 18 months to allow time for the state to develop a long-term viable funding solution — as recommended by the Trial Court Funding Commission, which noted, 'The Legislature should extend the statute allowing for fines and costs to be imposed in criminal cases until the state acts to replace this court-generated revenue with state general fund support,'" the State Bar of Michigan said in a written statement.

But not everyone is content to let the policy continue.

Attorney Angeles Meneses, with the State Appellate Defender Office, is challenging the law’s constitutionality in court.

She said holding courts responsible for raising their own money presents a separation of powers issue and keeps defendants from receiving a fair trial.

“Not only are criminal defendants are bearing these costs, but it’s also indigent criminal defendants, and so the costs of keeping the court running, the costs of paying people’s salaries, things that people can ill-afford are being put on their backs,” Meneses said.

In her eyes, it’s the Legislature’s job to make sure all branches of state government, including the judiciary, have money to function.

Another piece of the equation comes down to the effects of having to pay those fines — which Meneses said can sometimes top a thousand dollars — on people who face a series of hurdles after they complete their sentences.

“If someone is leaving prison and they’re re-entering society, it’s financial obligation that hangs over them and makes it that much harder to re-enter society and set yourself up for success because you do have these expensive financial obligations,” she said.

The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case Meneses is arguing.

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