Michigan courts, especially District Courts, assess criminal defendants all sorts of fines and fees. This revenue is crucial for cities and counties, and these fines and fees vary widely across Michigan. Ingham County relies on them for $800,000 of its annual budget. The District Court in East Lansing, according to city budget numbers, has netted the city $3-million a year for the past three years. It’s one of the only departments that actually makes money for the city.
Earlier this summer, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled unanimously in People v. Cunningham that the courts did not have independent authority to impose any court cost they like on convicted defendants. The ruling has many in local governments worried about their budgets, and the legislature is working on a law that would restore the funding mechanism.
But this also raises fundamental concerns about our criminal justice system, and whether using criminal defendants to fund courts and local governments is good policy, as it tends to disproportionately affect lower-income folks and people of color. Just last week, the city council in Ferguson, Missouri proposed changes to their court’s fees and fines, as they were seen as fueling some of the anger and mistrust between residents and their local law enforcement.
Thomas Boyd, chief judge of the 55th District Court in Ingham County, explains the issue in more detail and discusses the history of court fees and fines in Michigan.