Last week, Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills devoted some time in her courtroom for people who have past-due fines, some going back to 1982.

Most of those summonsed came to court ready to pay their debts or at least to set up a payment plan. Those who didn’t had the option of going to jail and working off their fine with a credit of $10 per day.

State courts are right to want to collect as much as $13 million in unpaid fines, but there has got to be a better way of going about it.

The biggest concern is using jail time as a way to collect an old fine. While there should be a consequence for those who deliberately don’t pay, it costs the state far more than $10 a day to house and feed an inmate.

If at least part of the goal is to recover money that is owed to the state, the gains are quickly erased by the cost of incarceration. And the threat of jail time for an unpaid fine does not set up a fair consequence across income levels. While some people could easily scrape up $100, others would be forced to spend 10 days in jail. It’s like, one lawyer said, the old “debtors prisons” which were outlawed more than a century ago.

And using court time with a judge — a precious commodity — to get already convicted people to pay what they owe leaves the innocent-until-proven-guilty defendants waiting, sometimes in jail, for their cases to be resolved.

The state should not walk away from the money that it is owed, but there should be other ways to go after it. Private collection agencies could be brought in to recover past- due fines, and might have more success. The most stubborn cases could wind up in court, but as civil matters, not criminal ones. That may not be perfect but it would be better than what’s happening, or not happening, now.

 


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