Michigan v. Bailey Could Stem the Tide of Unnecessary Incarceration

September 18, 2012

The Brennan Center filed a motion for appeal in Michigan v. Bailey, a case that raises important questions about the practice of jailing people who cannot afford to pay their criminal justice debt

The Brennan Center's motion argues that Joseph Bailey's incarceration is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause and the Michigan constitution. The Supreme Court has long held that governments cannot incarcerate people for nonpayment of legal obligations without holding a meaningful inquiry into whether they can actually afford the payments. Bailey was too poor to pay his court-ordered restitution, and the court revoked his probation and sent him to jail.

The Brennan Center has documented a growing trend to incarcerate people for their inability to pay debt. It is a practice that is costly to governments, communities, and individuals. The legal financial obligations imposed on defendants are often overly burdensome on people who have few financial resources to begin with. States’ efforts to collect this debt are often a futile quest for revenue, as the process can end up costing governments even more money, and serves to create new paths to prison for indigent people.

Michigan has no tracking system in place to determine the costs to the state for incarcerating people who are unable to pay. But common sense dictates that incarcerating people at high costs for days or weeks to the usual hundreds of dollars of unpaid fines can’t be a smart decision.

If the Court of Appeals accepts the case, the Brennan Center and its partners will file a friend-of-the-court brief challenging the Michigan’s modern-day debtors’ prison practices. This case could set an important precedent to stem the tide of unnecessary incarceration of the poor.