Woman Sentenced to Jail for Being Poor

ACLU of Michigan

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked for an emergency hearing today on behalf of an Escanaba woman sentenced to 30 days in jail because she is too poor to reimburse the court for her son’s stay in a juvenile detention facility.

“Like many people in these desperate economic times, Ms. Nowlin was laid off from work, lost her home and is destitute,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director. “Jailing her because of her poverty is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources. It is not a crime to be poor in this country and the government must stop resurrecting debtor’s prisons from the dustbin of history.”

In December 2008, Ms. Nowlin’s 16-year-old son was sentenced to the Bay Pines Center and Ms. Nowlin was ordered to pay $104 per month for his lodging. At the time of this order, Ms. Nowlin was homeless and working part-time with a friend after being laid off from her job. She told the court that she was unable to pay the ordered amount, however the judge found her in contempt for failing to pay. In addition, Ms. Nowlin’s requests for a court appointed attorney were denied.

Since March 3, 2009, Ms. Nowlin has been serving her sentence at the Delta County Jail. On March 6, 2009, she was released for one day to work. Once released she picked up her $178.53 check from work thinking that she now could pay the $104.00 to get out of jail. However, upon her return to jail that evening, the sheriff forced her to sign over her check to the jail to cover $120.00 for “room and board.” She was also charged $22 for a drug test and the booking fee.

In representing Ms. Nowlin, the ACLU of Michigan argues that the court unconstitutionally sentenced Ms. Nowlin to a debtors’ prison without assessing her ability to pay the court. Additionally, the court violated her rights by denying her request for a court appointed lawyer.

Recently, the ACLU of Michigan represented David Sutton of Detroit whose probation was extended because he could not afford his supervision fees. Mr. Sutton has no assets and his only income is the $262 monthly disability check he receives from the government. In 2003, Sutton was sentenced to probation for a year following a conviction in Wayne County Circuit Court. He performed community service and fulfilled all the conditions of his probation except one – he was not able to pay the supervision fee. Consequently, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge extended his probation year after year. In February, the ACLU successfully represented him at a hearing where the state had moved to revoke his probation once again.

The United States did away with debtors’ prison but, you can go to prison for the following debts:

In 1833 the United States reduced the practice of imprisonment for debts at the federal level. Most states followed suit. It is still possible, however, to be incarcerated for debt: debts of fraud, child-support, alimony, tax debt or release fines can land a citizen in jail or prison, or prevent one’s release. The constitutions of the U.S. states of Tennessee and Oklahoma forbid civil imprisonment for debts.

What is vague is the reason the son was put in juvenile detention. In any case, it sounds like a vicious cycle, can’t pay, you go to jail, you rack up “room and board” fees, you pay for one set of fees, and thrown back in jail because you can’t pay the other, and stay even longer. Great system the state of Michigan has worked out. (dripping heavy sarcasm)

6 thoughts on “Woman Sentenced to Jail for Being Poor

  1. Doesn’t Michigan have a Democratic legislature? It sounds much more like the type of system dreamed up by the “compassionate conservatives”. It’s something right out of Charles Dickens. What next, Michigan? Workhouses? Sending entire families to jail for debt? God, and I thought Illinois was corrupt!

  2. This is disgusting! Ms Nowlin could, in theory, end up with a life sentence just because she couldn’t afford the $104 fee the state charged for her son’s incarceration.

    Charging criminals for their incarceration is BULLSHIT! We all pay taxes, and one of the purposes of those taxes is to finance the state keeping the bad people off the streets and locked away where they can’t hurt us. We’re not supposed to be creating a nation of Jean Valjeans, and we certainly don’t need any Inspector Javerts on the benches.

    Ms Nowlin should be released immediately, and she shouldn’t be charged anything for either her or her son’s jail time. As for denying her free legal assistance, Michigan could be in trouble on that one. She has a federal constitutional right to counsel, which means she has a state right to it, too. She should sue Michigan for millions. It’s only right.

  3. “However, upon her return to jail that evening, the sheriff forced her to sign over her check to the jail to cover $120.00 for “room and board.” She was also charged $22 for a drug test and the booking fee.”

    I think something is suspicious about any sheriff charging an inmate $120 for three days in a county jail. And if she wasn’t convicted of a drug offense, why did she need a drug test? I hope the ACLU scorches this county of extortionists. This is right up the same alley as the judges in Pennsylvania railroading juveniles into the for-profit prison system for kickbacks!

  4. Sorry to say this but this story is neither surprising nor all that uncommon. Most states play these games. My son got in trouble as a teenager with burglary. A nonviolent crime, not drug related. They pretty much did the same thing to him.

    He was sent to prison and when it came time for him to be released he was presented with an overdue “hotel” bill from the local lockup where he had been detained prior to conviction. He was also made to take the AODA rehab program (at his expense) and while on parole required to take periodic drug tests and another AODA program. He could have refused and been sent back inside.

    Oh yeah, its a great system. Not surprising such a high percentage of offenders re-offend. Not only do they have to deal with trying to find a job as a convicted felon, they have to pay what amounts to blackmail money to remain out.

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