AUGUSTA — Lawmakers heard arguments Tuesday on a bill that would prohibit jailing people for failing to pay fines for criminal offenses – a policy that both opponents and supporters of the measure agreed frequently costs the state more than it recoups in payments.

Rep. Mark Dion, a Portland Democrat and former Cumberland County sheriff, introduced the bill before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee as a way to give judges more flexibility in how to address people who are sentenced to pay fines and to eliminate some minimum mandatory fines.

“I may not have the right solution, but I can say with certainty that debt collection is a very expensive proposition for our criminal justice system to manage,” Dion said. “When a person in an orange jumpsuit stands at the rail in the courtroom and states he has no money, none, how much money are we willing to spend to prove he’s telling the truth? The old adage remains true. You cannot squeeze blood from a stone.”

Dion said the cost of jailing someone is roughly $105 per day, and currently, the law allows judges to order people who have failed to pay fines to repay them at a rate of $25 to $100 per day.

“We’re burning dollars to make dimes,” he said.

The bill, L.D. 751, would change existing law to allow judges to jail only people who have the money to pay fines but have willfully failed to do so. It would allow judges more discretion in setting the fines imposed at sentencing and allow them to reduce the amounts in cases where people cannot pay. It also would allow people convicted of misdemeanors an alternative – performing community service at minimum wage rates.

Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the Maine Sheriffs’ Association and Homeless Voices for Justice all spoke in support of the bill.

Oamshri Amarasingham, the public policy attorney for the ACLU of Maine, said the current system punishes poor people more harshly than the rest of society and likened jailing people for outstanding fines a modern-day debtors’ prison.

“Our system is punishing people for their poverty. For those with access to resources, a fine is probably not that big of a deal. However, for those without, even a fine for a low-level violation can set off a change of consequences, entrapping a person in a cycle of repeat arrests and incarceration,” Amarasingham said.

But attorney John Pelletier, chairman of the state’s Criminal Law Advisory Commission, and District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau, who prosecutes criminal cases in Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties, opposed the bill as contrary to the intent of criminal sentencing.

“A fine is not a civil debt. It’s not like other debts. It’s a criminal sentence,” Pelletier said. “You risk engendering disrespect for the law.”

Pelletier added that the section of the law that would allow judges to amend fines imposed in criminal sentences would violate the state’s constitution. In Maine, only the governor has the power to pardon people or commute sentences.

Rushlau said judges under the current law can already set up individual payment plans with criminal defendants based on their ability to pay, sometimes as little as $5 or $10 per month.

“Use of the word debt really is an inappropriate expression of what is going on here unless we are talking about a debt to society criminals have imposed upon them as a result of their criminal behavior. And mostly when people talk about paying their debt to society, they talk about going to jail or going to prison,” Rushlau said.

Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch, said the department had no position on the bill, but told members of the Judiciary Committee that people who fail to pay fines are first given an opportunity to come to court and come up with new payment plans before a warrant is issued for their arrest.

“No one is being arrested for simple failure to pay a fine. No one is having their probation revoked for simple failure to pay a fine,” Lynch said.

But Lynch struggled with a question posed by Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who asked whether homeless people are being arrested for failure to pay because they have no mailing address to receive letters ordering them to appear in court.

“That’s a dilemma,” Lynch said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill and will revisit it at a work session next week.


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