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Judge agrees to quit forcing poor defendants to choose between fines, jail

prison bars

A suburban Detroit judge accused of sending poor people to jail if they couldn't immediately pay court fines has agreed to end that practice.

Courts aren't allowed to force indigent people to choose between paying a fine they can't afford, or going to jail – a practice that’s called “pay or stay.”

But the ACLU of Michigan says Eastpointe Judge Carl Gerds III was routinely doing just that.

“This judge's practice was particularly disturbing,” says ACLU Michigan attorney Mike Steinberg. “And we challenged a couple of these sentences and appealed them, and won, and yet the judge continued to do this." 

Steinberg says one of the ACLU's clients was facing jail time because she couldn't afford a $455 fine issued by Gerds for not having her dogs licensed.

The ACLU appealed to a higher court to step in and force Gerds to first determine whether a fine would create serious financial hardship.

This week, Gerds signed an order issued by Macomb County Circuit Court, saying he will abide by that practice.

His attorney, Tom Rombach, says Gerds never directly threatened anyone with jail if they couldn’t pay a fine. Instead, he says, the judge was following guidance from the state court administrative offices on “very aggressive collections practices” that Rombach says were instituted in order to get offenders to take the courts seriously.

Rombach says Gerds signed the court order because he approves the approach it outlines: consider whether a fine will create “manifest hardship,” and if so, “impose a payment alternative, such as a payment plan,” according to the court order.

“All the parties to this lawsuit approve of that approach,” says Rombach. “And we’re essentially advocating it and judge Gerds has already implemented it. This is about Judge Gerds’ commitment to fulfill best practices.”

Both the ACLU and Rombach say they want Michigan’s Supreme Court to issue an order making it clear to judges what is, and isn’t, legal when it comes to collecting fees. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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