Culture of Class
10:09 am
Tue November 22, 2011

Debtors pay... or stay in jail

Debtor's Prison

When you step into a Michigan courtroom, crime is supposed to be crime, regardless of social class. But whether you go home or go to jail  sometimes depends on whether you have money.

Let’s say you’re one of the many thousands of people in Michigan who’s unemployed. Or, you’re working in a job that doesn’t cover your bills. Like your rent or mortgage. Or, like child support.

And if you don’t have the money to pay those bills,  you might end up in court. Selesa Likine did. Her husband divorced her. He got custody of the kids.  She lost her home. Likine, who had worked as a realtor, was ordered to pay $1,100 a month in child support. She couldn’t pay it  and the court was not allowed to hear why. So she spent 43 days in the Oakland County Jail.

“The jury in the case never heard that during the period when she wasn’t paying the child support, she was institutionalized with schizo-affective disorder, was declared totally disabled by the Social Security Administration, lost her realtors’ license, was unable to work, and was subsisting on disability income,” says David Moran, co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

Moran took over Likine’s Case. In October, Moran and the American Civil Liberties Union asked the Michigan Supreme Court for a new trial. They say what happened to Likine is no different than a debtor’s prison – sort of like Dickensian days, when poor people who owed money were thrown into jail.

Likine, who’s in her 40s, lives with her mother now. She takes medicine for her mental illness and says she's stable. But she’s not optimistic about her future. She doesn’t think anyone will want to hire her because she’s a felon.

“It’s like a double-edged sword. Not only was I convicted of something I couldn’t pay, my future’s been taken away,” says Likine.

Likine’s case is still under review.

Marilyn Stephen is director of the child support division of Michigan’s Department of Human Services.

She says the state doesn’t keep a record of the number of people jailed for nonpayment of child support. But she says few actually go to jail. Steffen says the Friend of the Court Office, which is part of the family division of the circuit court, works with people who owe child support.

“I know that the Friend of the Court are more than willing to take that sort of circumstance into consideration. If somebody is receiving disability payments, depending on the source of that disability, it may be that child support would even be set at zero.”

Stephen says it’s all about communication and that avoiding child support payments could lead to an arrest.

There are cases of what’s called “pay or stay.”

The story of Christopher Drewek

Sally Drewek lives in a small town in Macomb County. Her 47-year-old son, Christopher, had been out of work for three years and was deeply in debt. He was about to be evicted. He lied to police and told them he’d been held up at gunpoint to try and cover up problems with his bank account.

He was arrested.

Chris Drewek’s charge was eventually reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. And, he was given a choice: Pay a $550 fine immediately or spend a hundred days in jail.

“Chris was there for 10 days. And my son hung himself. His body wasn’t found for three and a half hours. Three and a half hours,” Sally Drewek remembers.

Drewek believes some local jurisdictions use courtrooms as a source of revenue because they benefit from fines and fees.

“There are a lot of other people out there. I’ve read about them, I’ve seen them in courtrooms, where they are told, ‘You don’t have the money? Sit down over there. We’re going to give you an hour to raise it. If you can’t raise it, they’re taking you to jail,” she says.

Jails charge inmates a daily rate – in Macomb County – it was $60. Had Chris Drewek not taken his own life, and served his sentence, he would have come out of jail owing more than $5000.