Should defendants be paying for court costs?

Whether or not defendants should be ordered to pay court costs is coming before the Michigan Supreme Court, however local officials argue it doesn't affect judges' impartiality.

A state law allows local courts to collect fees from defendants found guilty of a crime for the courts' operating expenses. Fees can be collected to pay for things such as the courts' electricity and heating bills and staff salaries.

The Michigan Supreme Court issued an order in October stating it would hear arguments in the case of Travis Johnson, who was ordered to pay $1,200 in court costs in Alpena County for a pair of convictions.

The court especially wants to examine whether the law deprives criminal defendants of being able to appear in front of an impartial judge when the judge knows a conviction will bring in cash to ease budget pressures.

Breaking down the numbers

In St. Clair County Circuit Court, court costs generated $90,886 in revenue in 2020 and $108,219 in 2019, according to county records provided by St. Clair County Finance Director Dena Alderdyce.

St. Clair County Circuit Court Administrator Mike McMillan said total revenues for circuit court are difficult to tally because revenue is also computed with the St. Clair County Clerk's Office. Expenses for the circuit court totaled $1,208,089 in 2019 and $1,260,336 in 2020, McMillan said.

In district court, court costs generated $527,852 out of $1,477,659 total revenues, or 35.7%, in 2020. In 2019, court costs generated $648,872 of $1,858,964 total revenues, or 34.9%, according to county records.

St. Clair County Deputy District Court Administrator Melanie Gillies said the line item “court costs” includes not only court costs billed to defendants under the law being challenged, it also includes other mandatory state fees the court must collect in revenue.

Gillies said there is more revenue in that line item than circuit court because the district court presides over a greater number of cases.

St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge Michael West

St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge Michael West and McMillan said circuit court usually imposes a fee of $300 per defendant that is found guilty via a jury trial or pleads guilty.

West said that fee could be far more to cover operating costs, however, the courts chose to go with a standard minimum.

Gillies said the amount imposed on each defendant varies in district court.

'It's just a routine function'

St. Clair County Chief Public Defender Michael Boucher said any cost imposed on an indigent defendant imposes a hardship.

“My office represents the indigent,” Boucher said in an email. “This means that most all are living on the razor’s edge each month wondering whether they can pay their rent, buy medication for a sick child, keep groceries in the refrigerator, or have their car repaired so they can go to work. So yes, of course the assessment of fines or court costs or any other financial penalty can have a harmful impact on defendants.”

West and Boucher said they don't believe the court costs affects judges' impartially in St. Clair County. West said he doesn't usually think of the court cost because it's a routine fee and one of several state and local fees.

“It's not anything that I dwell on and try to determine what I'm going to order in terms of court costs,” West said. “It's just a routine function at this particular point and it has been for quite some time because we have taken a position that we are not going to push the envelope and assess the costs that might be overly burdensome.”

However, West said the current court funding model has some inequality, as prosecutors are not required to pay for court resources if they lose a case.

“There is some inequality that is built into the system the way that it is right now and that needs to be changed,” West said. “But until such time as we can come up with something a little bit better, it does represent a reasonable funding source for the county and we always have the ability to adjust based upon equity and resources.”

St. Clair County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Stephen Guilliat also agreed that the practice does not affect local judges' impartiality, and the law does not allow for local prosecutors to pay for court costs if they lose a case.

“The law does not allow for (prosecutors to pay courts costs) nor do we have the budget for it,” Guilliat said. “We are tasked with doing a lot with a limited budget and we are not budgeted for court costs. Laws can be changed, but that is for the legislature.”

McMillan and West said some of those court fees probably go uncollected in circuit court because a portion of those defendants are unable to pay, either due to financial hardship or because they face pre-trial incarceration.

McMillan said other court fees, such as restitution, are usually first priority to be paid.

McMillan said the court costs that are collected are used for court programs, such as counseling programs, domestic violence intervention programs and substance use disorder programs.

“Courts aren't in the business to generate revenue,” McMillan said. “The statue allows us to recoup some of the costs, but really what the benefit for us is, the more of those costs that we do collect, we use those things for programs.”

Contact Laura Fitzgerald at (810) 941-7072 or lfitzgeral@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Port Huron Times Herald: Should defendants be paying for court costs?

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