Brennan Center Files Brief in Michigan Debtors’ Prison Case

The Brennan Center for Justice, along with the ACLU of Michigan, and the Michigan State Planning Body filed an amicus brief late Friday appealing the prison sentence of Joseph Bailey, whose inability to pay his court-ordered restitution was not considered during sentencing. The amici are represented by the international law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP. The brief argues that jailing Bailey for being too poor to pay is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause and the Michigan constitution.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled that indigent individuals may not be incarcerated based on their inability to pay criminal-justice related debt, Michigan routinely jails poor defendants who cannot pay court-ordered fees and fines.

“Imprisoning defendants who are too poor to pay court-related fees is more than just a violation of their constitutional rights,” said Jessica Eaglin, counsel in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center. “It perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and punishment that worsens the growing costs of unnecessary incarceration. The court needs to create a system that imposes suitable penalties for criminal action while protecting defendants, their families and the economy.”

The brief urges the court to clarify what constitutes a fair system for assessing defendants’ ability to pay. It emphasizes that rather than incarceration, courts can establish payment plans, substitute community service, or waive certain legal financial obligations — all of which make it more likely that individuals will repay their court-ordered debt.

“It is imperative that the criminal justice system has a sound process in place to determine a defendant’s ability to pay,” said Joshua Rogaczewski, a partner at McDermott. “Without such a process, defendants who lack the ability to pay court-ordered fines or penalties are exposed to the unacceptable risk of incarceration for failing to pay those fines or penalties. We’re proud to be a part of this important matter.”

For more information or to speak to an expert, contact Naren Daniel at [email protected]