Poor people should never be locked up for being unable to pay their legal debts. Putting someone in jail for failure to pay a fine creates a two-tiered justice system where poor people are punished more harshly than people who can afford to pay their fines. Doing so is unconstitutional and a huge waste of taxpayer dollars, yet several states – including Maine – still rely on this system of de facto debtors’ prisons.

We at the ACLU of Maine began looking into debtors’ prisons in Maine over a year ago. Our study into the number of people being held in jail because they are too poor to pay their fines led this article in the Portland Press Herald. The Bangor Daily News and thePress Herald also ran excellent editorials calling for an end to this draconian practice.

We also worked with Rep. Dion (D-Portland) to introduce legislation that would have outlawed the incarceration of people for being too poor to pay. That bill was ultimately tabled, but it helped lead to the creation of a task force to study pretrial conditions in Maine’s jails. I was honored to be appointed to the Pretrial Justice Reform Taskforce, which was convened by Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley with the support of Gov. LePage and bipartisan legislative leadership.

The task force studied Maine’s pretrial system, with a goal of making recommendations to lessen the human and financial cost of keeping so many people in jail who simply don’t need to be there.

Earlier this year, we released our recommendations. In addition to taking on fines, the recommendations also address another piece of the puzzle responsible for ballooning jail populations: the broken bail system. 

As we wrote last year, “in Maine, decisions about pre-trial release often do not take into account a person’s ability to pay. A 2011 report by the Maine Center for Public Reporting revealed that decisions about cash bail amounts, made initially by bail commissioners, are unofficially pre-set in some counties and in others are based on the amount of the fine a person will have to pay if convicted. As a result, every day hundreds of Mainers who have not been convicted of any crime languish in our jails - not because they are a flight risk or a threat to community safety, but because they are too poor to pay.”

Now the Maine Legislature can take a meaningful step toward tackling the misuse of fines and bail to keep people in jail unnecessarily, by passing LD 1639. This bill, introduced by Senator Burns (R-Whiting), would implement the recommendations of the task force.

It is well-known by now that America is the world’s biggest jailer, and locking people up who simply don’t belong there is a big reason for that. LD 1639 is a meaningful step toward ending mass incarceration in Maine.

(updated with a link to the Bangor Daily News editorial