AUGUSTA – In 1984, Joseph L. Blais of Portland was convicted of drunken driving in Kennebec County.

He was fined $210, but he never paid it.

Now, 26 years later, Blais is paying it off at the rate of $10 a day for each day he’s held at the Kennebec County Jail.

He’ll be out May 8.

The state judicial branch is stepping up the collection of unpaid fines by sending defendants notices ordering them to reappear in court for a hearing.

Blais joined a dozen others in Kennebec County Superior Court this past week for proceedings dealing with people who default on criminal fines.

Using court time to handle past-due fines and having defaulters sit in jail are things judges want to avoid, so Justice Nancy Mills told defense attorneys to be sure their clients can pay any fines and fees up front — when they’re sentenced.

Mills told the attorneys in a letter that unpaid fines occupy 1,360 files in the county’s Superior Court. Some cases date to 1982.

The statewide tally of past-due unpaid fines — for criminal and civil cases — tops $13 million, according to Mary Ann Lynch, director of court information for the state judiciary.

At the Kennebec County hearings Tuesday, most people brought money or set up a new payment arrangement. Some elected to go to jail to pay off their fines, either at the statutory rate of $5 a day or at the higher rate of $10 a day.

Mills sees her efforts as helping defendants avoid trouble later, after they have served their time, ended probation, gotten jobs and become re-established in the community.

“It really is going to help these defendants,” she said. “It’s best for them, in the end, if they are prepared to pay the money up front.”

Mills said there can be other penalties, including suspended driver’s licenses, fishing and hunting licenses, for those who default on a court fine.

“I understand that (at sentencing) the main thing only their mind is, ‘How much time am I going to be incarcerated?’ ” she said.

But the judge said the fines that are imposed also must be paid.

For failing to pay fees and fines, defendants now end up spending several nights in jail before being brought to a judge, sometimes including holidays and state shutdown days.

So, for a $25 unpaid fine, for example, “There is the potential to be in jail for four nights,” the judge said.

Mills said the judicial branch now employs people to work in the various courthouses to review delinquent fines and prepare arrest warrants.

During one week, Mills noted, she reviewed 70 requests for arrest warrants based on unpaid fines and fees — and signed 68 of them.

“None of this is a good use of anyone’s time,” she told defense counsel.

“Instead of devoting our limited resources to those defendants charged with crimes who are presumed innocent, we devote an increasing amount of our resources to collecting money from defendants who have had their day in court and refuse to comply with their sentences.”

Defense attorneys, however, are concerned about defendants’ ability to pay.

“People in Maine are poor and they just don’t have the money, and to try to send them in jail is like debtors’ prison,” lawyer Ronald Bourget said.

On Tuesday, Bourget had a client who lives on Social Security benefits arrange to pay $25 a month to satisfy the remaining $700 he owes on a drunken-driving conviction.

“I appreciate Justice Mills making an attempt to reduce a liability area and to get that out of the way,” Bourget said. “But I think a larger review has to be done. It’s the Legislature that has mandated that poor people have to pay these.”

Lynch, who works in the courts’ offices in Portland, said the total in unpaid fines is rising.

A survey of court records statewide shows that, as of June 2009, past-due fines amounted to $12.3 million; by March, that figure had risen to $13.1 million.

“It’s the judge’s duty to impose the fines, and, ultimately, if people don’t pay the fines, the remedy is for judges to issue an arrest warrant,” Lynch said.

“(Mills’) letter really does highlight the difficulty of these mandatory fines in a bad economy when many people are out of work. At the same time, we have an obligation to enforce the laws the Legislature has passed.”