Last year a Michigan woman was sent to jail because her dogs weren’t licensed and she missed her court date. It caused significant outrage at the time, going viral on Reddit and ABC, but now a Michigan circuit court says the days of harsh punishments for petty violations are over.
According to the Detroit Free Press, the court’s order was directed more or less at a specific judge in Eastpointe, Carl Gerds, who had favored a “pay or stay” penalty system for minor infractions such as traffic tickets.
The court order comes after a recent lawsuit by the ACLU about this very issue. The ACLU argued that has been Supreme Court precedent against this practice, and that instead of jailing poor people who can’t pay fines and court fees, judges should consider a person’s ability to pay and perhaps formulate some sort of payment plan or community service as an alternative to prison.
“We’re elated about the court’s order because it upholds a basic principle of fairness in our nation—that nobody should be jailed just because he or she is too poor to pay fines, fees and costs,” Michael J. Steinberg, its Legal Director, said in a statement. “We are relieved to know that defendants in Eastpointe no longer have to worry about landing in what amounts to illegal debtors’ prisons.”
Since the court order was directed at a specific judge in a specific town, it’s unclear how effective this precedent will be at curbing draconian responses to minor infractions, but the Free Press says the state Supreme Court is considering issuing some new rules similar to the Circuit Court’s.
This issue is hardly limited to Michigan, mind you. Lawsuits have been launched elsewhere–notably, Ferguson, Mo., the site of widespread rioting and protests after a police officer shot Michael Brown in 2014–arguing that it’s unfair to jail defendants who are too poor to pay fines.