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ACLU: Michigan Judge's 'Pay Or Stay' Sentence Policy Is Creating Debtors' Prison

DETROIT (WWJ/AP) - The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging a Detroit-area judge known for sending poor people to jail if they can't immediately pay fines, saying the "pay or stay" policy is illegal and creating a debtors' prison.

A higher court stepped in to stop Eastpointe Judge Carl Gerds from sentencing a single mother on Wednesday who can't afford to pay a $455 fine for failing to have her dogs licensed.

The ACLU of Michigan said Donna Anderson is justified in fearing she would be ordered to jail, noting that Gerds sentenced a man to 30 days in jail in June after he couldn't afford to pay a smaller jaywalking fine.

Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled years ago that such practices were unconstitutional.

"We're not saying there shouldn't be punishment," Steinberg told The Associated Press. "What we're saying is you cannot send someone to jail because they're too poor to pay a fine. Some sort of alternative sentence should be fashioned — community service or an extended payment schedule."

Gerds, a judge since 2009, won't comment on pending cases, Eastpointe court administrator Karen Haydett said Wednesday.

The ACLU asked a higher court to step in, requesting that Macomb County Judge James Maceroni order Gerds to stop sending anyone to jail if they can't pay. Maceroni ordered a timeout in Anderson's case, but he hasn't taken any broader action.

In a complaint filed July 9 on behalf of Anderson, the ACLU said Gerds has repeatedly told people they must immediately pay fines or be locked up.

"Many of these sentences actually on them money or jail, I mean, that's what you are sentenced to, money or jail. Well, if you are poor that means jail, if you are rich, that means money, and that's really just incredibly unfair," says ACLU Attorney Miriam Auckerman.

"So we are asking the Macomb Circuit Court to tell the lower court that it can't jail people without looking at their ability to pay. Being poor is not a crime," she says.

Aucherman says there have been several instances of this type of debtors' prison sentencing in Judge Gerds' courtroom.

In June, Stephane Earl-Rico Milton was ordered to pay $334 for failing to use a crosswalk - jaywalking - or go to jail for 30 days. He didn't have the money, and he spent five days in jail until a higher court released him pending an appeal.

"He was told he would go to jail unless he could pay it all off at once," she said.

Ryan Rockett was sent to jail in January because he couldn't immediately pay $1,500 for driving without insurance and a valid license.

"Is it pay or stay?" asked Rockett, who qualified for food stamps and Medicaid.

"Yes, sir," Gerds replied, according to a transcript from the hearing.

The sentence was later overturned by Macomb County Judge Mary Chrzanowski, who sent the case back to Gerds. He dropped the fine and instead sentenced Rockett to 93 days in jail.

Rockett is free while that punishment is being appealed but already has spent 18 days behind bars.

© TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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