Contrary to what this op-ed - published last week in the Portland Press Herald - argues, there is no question our criminal fine system has a disproportionate impact on the poor.
In Maine, a sentence for any crime can have a criminal fine attached to it. Every year thousands of Mainers are ordered to pay court fines - some for serious crimes, some for very minor ones. For those with access to resources, a fine doesn't have to be a big deal; however, for those without resources a fine can unnecessarily prolong their time in the criminal justice system - trapping them in a cycle of repeat arrests and incarceration - for no other reason than their poverty.
This is why in 1983, in the case of Bearden vs. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that incarcerating someone just for failing to pay a fine they could not afford was unconstitutional. Doing so made our criminal justice system more punitive to the poor than the rich and thus was a violation of the 14th Amendment's promise of Equal Protection. In Bearden, the Supreme ruled that prior to incarcerating someone - even just for a short period of time - an inquiry had to be made into his or her ability to pay and, if the court found they could pay and willfully failed to do so, then and only then could they be incarcerated.
Flash forward 40 years and Maine's criminal justice system has nearly tripled in size. And, not surprisingly, so too has the cost. Desperate to find ways to balance the budget, Maine lawmakers have steadily increased fine amounts and in some cases made them mandatory - meaning that even if a judge makes a finding that the person is too poor to pay their court ordered fine he or she has no ability to remove or reduce the fine - in complete violation of the Bearden decision.
So, back to the op-ed from last week, does Maine's criminal fine system disproportionately penalize the poor? Absolutely. In Cumberland County alone, in a one-year period, approximately 900 people were booked into the county jail just for failing to pay a fine. Of those, over 20 percent were listed as homeless or transient at the time of their arrest. It's hard to imagine finding that someone without housing somehow had the resources necessary to pay a fine - I'm pretty confident this would not pass the standard laid out in Bearden.
In the op-ed, the author tries to argue that no one in Maine goes to jail for failing to pay a fine; rather, they go for failing to appear in court. This distinction is nothing but a difference in semantics, and ironically the same one for which the Department of Justice criticized the city of Ferguson in a scathing report released last month. In Ferguson, courts were issuing “Failure to Appear” warrants in place of “Failure to Pay Fine” warrants, to provide “cushion for judges against the attack that the court is operating as a debtor’s prison.” Not surprisingly, the DOJ still concluded the practice was constitutionally deficient. Regardless of what we are calling it, people are going to jail for no reason other than their poverty.
Imprisonment is a severe sanction and thus should be reserved for severe crimes – never over a fine. And no one should face harsher penalties due to poverty. Judges should be impartial adjudicators, not taxman tasked with extracting revenue from likely indigent defendants. Our criminal justice system should be focused on rehabilitation and public safety, not revenue generation.