MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — A West Michigan judge is applauding a new report that declared Michigan’s court-funding system “broken.”
“It is absolutely a conflict,” Judge Maria Ladas Hoopes said of the way Michigan courts are funded.
“(It) puts judges in an incredible ethical dilemma.”
That’s because a portion of the fees, fines and cost judges assess daily help funds the very courtrooms over which they preside.
A report (PDF) released Monday by the state’s Trial Court Funding Commission urged change to “address the historic problem with money’s influence on the justice system as manifested in Michigan.”
“Michigan residents going to court should not face a judge who needs money from a defendant to satisfy demands for court operating expenses,” reads the 43-page report from the commission, which was created in 2017 by the state Legislature.
Ladas Hoopes agrees wholeheartedly.
“If your (court expenses) are funded by the fines and costs, and you literally have to pay the light bills, how do you not feel that pressure? It’s the way the current system in Michigan is set up,” explained Ladas Hoopes, a Muskegon County District Court judge who’s been on the bench for a dozen years.
Still, while Ladas Hoopes thinks the current funding system presents a conflict for judges, she said she does not consciously consider funding pressures when deciding individual cases. Instead, she said she thinks about the facts and expenses of each case, as well as the individual’s ability to pay.
“When assessing fines, you have to be fair and balanced. You can’t have a wide variation between an individual who can pay and an individual who can’t pay. But should (the ability to pay) be considered? Absolutely,” Ladas Hoopes said.
24 Hour News 8 was in the judge’s courtroom Wednesday as she sentenced a man who pleaded guilty to a charge of driving while his license was suspended, a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $500 fine. Ladas Hoopes ordered Gregory Scholtens to pay a $100 fine and $150 in court costs.
Scholtens said he was surprised and pleased by the $250 fine because he paid $400 earlier this year when another judge in the same courthouse sentenced him for the same thing.
While judges cannot exceed a maximum fine set by state law, they often have some discretion over how much they assess in fines and costs. While Scholtens was happy that he avoided jail and a bigger fine, he didn’t like that judges have so much discretion, nor that the fines and fees they levy help fund the courts they run.
“It’s not right that you can charge one person one thing for the same crime and another person something else for the same crime,” Scholtens said.
But Ladas Hoopes wants judges to maintain some discretion because it allows them to consider each case individually.
The Trial Court Funding Commission recommended several changes, including the establishment of a stable court funding system through the creation of a central trial court fund that distributes monies to trial courts based on operational requirements.
“The new trial court system will eliminate real or perceived conflicts of interest, ensure adequate funding and guarantee access to justice,” the report read.
But another West Michigan judge said the current funding mechanism is working well for his court system.
“I’m not convinced at this point that we need state funding for court operations,” Hon. Bradley Knoll, chief judge of Ottawa County’s 58th District Court, said.
“We don’t assess costs to generate revenue for Ottawa County. (Levying fines) is a way to achieve defendant accountability,” Knoll explained.
Knoll went on to say the 58th District Court has always had a great relationship with the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, which oversees the courts’ operating budget.
“We’ve been getting our budget needs met,” he said. “There’s always been a clear understanding that there should not be a link between our operating budget and how much revenue we bring in. … You simply cannot link revenue to budget.”