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Gov. Whitmer extends law putting court costs on defendants

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed another extension of a law that makes people convicted of crimes, typically with low incomes, responsible for a portion of local court expenses

The law, which raises millions of dollars for local governments, doesn't apply to others who use Michigan's court system. It has been criticized, even by judges, as unfair at minimum and unconstitutional at worst.

The state Supreme Court last spring heard a challenge by a man who was ordered to pay $1,200 in Alpena County. But instead of settling the matter, the court said it would hear more arguments during its 2022-23 term.

The Legislature in September voted to keep the law going for an additional 18 months. Only 17 lawmakers opposed it. Whitmer, a Democrat, said she signed the extension last week.

Rep. Sarah Lightner, R-Springport, acknowledged it puts another “Band-Aid on this issue” while a long-term court funding solution can be explored.

A group called the Fines and Fees Justice Center tracks how states impose fines and fees in courts. Co-director Lisa Foster said Michigan stands out because judges who preside over a criminal case are also given power to order financial penalties that benefit local government.

People convicted of crimes can be ordered to pay a portion of staff salaries and building maintenance. Some judges don’t order it.

“People need to have confidence in a court system without a perception of bias. That's a constitutional issue,” Foster said.

“The justice system is a core government service," she added. “It's supposed to resolve disputes for the entire community and it should be paid for by the entire community, just like we pay for fire protection and police protection and schools, even though we might not have children in schools.”

From 2018 through 2020, Michigan courts collected $108 million statewide, 75% of it in district courts, which handle traffic tickets, drunken driving cases and other misdemeanors mostly committed by people who can least afford to pay.

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