Maine District Court Judge Michael Roberts listens as a defendant discusses unpaid fines with him on Dec. 5. PHOTO BY JACK DODSON

Maine judges go the distance lest jails become debtors’ prisons

ELLSWORTH — A young mother stood before Judge Michael Roberts at the Hancock County District Court on Tuesday. She owed $815 in fines, which had gone unpaid.

Judge Roberts wanted to determine why she had failed to pay her fines. He also intended to help her work out a payment plan. The young woman was one of 16 people in similar straits scheduled for hearings Tuesday. Five showed up.

Most who didn’t show had warrants placed for their arrest for failure to pay fines and for failure to appear in court. If the fines they owed were small, Roberts suspended their driver’s licenses instead of issuing a warrant.

The young woman standing before the judge explained to Roberts that she’d recently given birth and was enrolled at a local live-in rehabilitation program for mothers of young children.

“I just haven’t had the money,” she told Roberts. “I was wondering if I could resume the payments when I get out?”

“And when is that?” Roberts asked.

“February,” she replied.

Roberts gave her a payment plan of $25 per month, which starts in April.

“That gives you a little time,” he said. “Good luck with your treatment.”

The young mother is one of many Mainers working out a payment plan with the state’s judicial system. As people interact with the criminal justice system, they can be issued fines and fees, and failure to pay can lead to jail time.

Courts in the state attempt to give those who haven’t paid a chance to discuss their debt with a judge. Mary Ann Lynch, the government and media counsel for the Maine Judicial Branch, said she’s seen judges across the state offer defendants payment plans as low as $5 per month.

But if a defendant misses that hearing, judges such as Roberts may issue an arrest warrant.

Between Dec. 27, 2016, and Nov. 27, 2017, 1,001 individuals were booked into the Hancock County Jail as a result of warrants for their arrest, according to a review of records. Of those, 160 were booked for failure to appear and 84 were booked for default on fine or restitution payments.

Sometimes these charges were in addition to others, but most of them stood alone. According to court officials, a booking of failure to appear could mean that the person failed to pay a fine. It could also apply to a judicial hearing that the defendant missed.

Together, these two charges made up almost 25 percent of the jail’s population in 2017. This number is consistent with state findings. A 2015 report for the judicial branch found that 23 percent of defendants in seven of Maine’s counties were booked for unpaid fines.

When such defendants are arrested and booked, the bail they pay is applied to the fines they owe. The judicial branch report found that the vast majority of inmates booked for unpaid fines stayed in jail for less than two days.

On Tuesday, Roberts accepted from each defendant who asked a payment plan within the range and time frame each requested.

That scene diverges considerably from court proceedings in other parts of the country. Across the United States, criminal justice observers have decried practices they refer to as “debtors’ prisons,” where poor people are being sent to jail for being unable to pay fines.

Numerous cities have been sued for these practices in recent years. Nearly all have settled the lawsuits by changing their policies. It is illegal in the United States to send people to jail if they’re unable to pay a fine, according to 1983 Supreme Court case Bearden v. Georgia.

According to Maine officials, the contrast between courts in this state and those accused of operating debtor’s prisons is by design. Many states and municipalities do not have a standard for judges to determine someone’s ability to pay, which can lead to disadvantaged people being sent to jail for what a judge deems willful nonpayment.

According to Lynch, Maine’s judges follow a policy requiring the least amount of jail time possible for someone who owes money to the court system.

“We don’t want people to be in jail any longer than they have to be,” Lynch said. “There are constitutional issues involved in that.”

Controversially, some towns and cities allow the court to generate revenue through the collection of fines, providing an incentive for the court to exact harsh penalties on those who don’t or can’t pay. The justice system in Ferguson, Mo., came under official scrutiny after the notorious 2014 police killing of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown. The local court was found to have increased its revenue considerably through fines.

In Maine, Lynch said, the Legislature funds the judicial branch. Money from fines is sent to a general fund and is not retained by the courts.

“It is totally divorced from fines,” she said of the judicial branch’s budget.

But even as the state’s system can be structured in a way that keeps people out of jail for money-related issues, experts in criminal justice have said even a short stay in jail can be harmful to those lacking financial resources.

When people are arrested for unpaid fines, they can stay in jail until they have a chance to speak with a judge. Hancock County Jail Administrator Tim Richardson said in an interview earlier this fall that most of the Hancock County Jail’s inmates arrested for unpaid fines are released after a hearing.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice-focused nonprofit, released a report in 2015 suggesting short stays in jail can have dramatic effects on an individual’s life.

“Research has shown that spending as few as two days in jail can increase the likelihood of a sentence of incarceration and the harshness of that sentence,” wrote the authors of the report. Even brief incarceration can “reduce economic viability, promote future criminal behavior and worsen the health of the largely low-risk defendants who enter them — making jail a gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the criminal justice system at considerable costs to the people involved and to society at large.”

In Hancock County, one of the consequences related to jail time can be opiate addiction. Mike Bibro, a counselor with Open Door Recovery Center in Ellsworth, said jail can exacerbate addictions.

“They want to get well, but they perhaps stopped using, and then they get blindsided with something like that … Things can snowball fairly quickly.”

For Lynch, the issue comes down to a balance: administering fair justice while attempting to keep people out of jail.

“Our judges are very concerned with enforcing the law,” she said. “But if people can’t pay, our judges will work with them.”

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson began working for The Ellsworth American in mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.

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