Ruling affects local court costs

A new Michigan Supreme Court ruling could have a huge impact on local county budgets.

The state Supreme Court recently ruled that criminal defendants can’t be billed for the costs of running the local courthouse.

This has been standard practice for years.

The court unanimously ruled in favor of an Allegan County convict who challenged a $1,000 penalty that accompanied his guilty plea in a drug case.

The amount included $500 as Fred Cunningham’s share of the court’s operating costs.

The Supreme Court says judges can’t order costs that aren’t authorized by the Legislature. It overturned an appeals court decision that had upheld the practice used by Allegan and other counties.

Fred Cunningham’s attorney is Anne Yantus, and she says the new ruling should greatly reduce the financial burdens on convicts who often have no ability to pay.

Instead, those financial burdens will likely be dumped right in the taxpayers’ laps. Many taxpayers also have little or no ability to pay, and they weren’t arrested and convicted.

Locally, Dickinson County officials are preparing for a tight budget year in 2015, in part because of this ruling.

In Dickinson County, the potential loss could range from $150,000 to $195,000, said County Controller Nicole Frost.

The Allegan County court collected $195,000 in 2013.

“The impact statewide is phenomenal,” she said. Some counties could potentially lose millions.

Frost said the Michigan Association of Counties is looking into the issue, as are Michigan legislators.

Until a new law passes, counties are forced to abide by the ruling and local judges cannot add court costs to convicts’ sentences.

Counties will now deal with belt-tightening, or increase tax rates.

In Dickinson County, the 6.1203 millage rate that has stayed constant since 2003.

We look to the county commissioners to keep that rate with next year’s budget.

We also encourage state lawmakers to put this issue at the top of their agenda when they return to Lansing.

It makes no sense to cut the penalties of convicted individuals and increase the costs of law-abiding residents.

Our local courts are busy places, and someone has to pay to keep them open. Suspects are arrested every day. Their day in court is set for justice to be served.

Wouldn’t you think that those most responsible for keeping the courts in operation should bear the brunt of the costs? Court costs should be part of a convicted individual’s punishment.

Tell your lawmaker to keep this time-honored tradition alive.