Lately, it seems that not a week goes by that there isn’t some news from Ferguson, MO. Sadly, the news this morning was of more bloodshed. Last week, it was the scathing report issued by the Justice Department finding that Ferguson law enforcement engaged in a pattern of biased policing and that municipal courts in the city were operating in a corrupt manner, using their judicial authority to compel payment of fines in order to fill the city’s coffers. Not surprisingly, communities of color were disproportionately more likely to be impacted by these fines.

To help better explain this, check out this clip from Daily Show Correspondent Jessica Williams.     

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While Williams puts a comical spin on the story, the reality is that the current system is both unfair and unconstitutional. Fines imposed for even minor offenses accrue at an alarming rate, and while in the video Jessica “got booted,” in real life, people in Ferguson are taken to jail when they are late on their fine payments.

Over three decades ago, in Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that jailing people just because they are too poor to pay is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because doing so makes our criminal justice system more punitive to the poor. Yet incarceration for failure to pay fines is once again common practice. This is largely due to skyrocketing corrections costs – not surprisingly, mass incarceration is astronomically expensive. States have become desperate to find new ways to collect revenue and one easy solution has been to make those in the criminal justice system pay for their own punishment. While to some this might seem like a good idea in theory, in practice this system has both undermined the role of our courts – requiring our judges to act as tax collectors rather than impartial adjudicators – and contributed to the reemergence of de facto debtors’ prisons. 

In the report, the Justice Department lambastes the city of Ferguson, accusing the municipal courts of allowing concerns about revenue generation to fundamentally compromise the role of the court, using threat of arrests and incarceration to coerce payments even when the crimes themselves do not carry a penalty of incarceration, and issuing warrants without any inquiry into the person’s ability to pay - in direct violation of the Bearden decision.

As I was reading through the report, I could not help but draw comparisons to fine collection practices here in Maine. Like in Missouri, every year thousands of people are arrested and incarcerated just for failing to pay their fines on time. 

Like in Missouri, the primary purpose of many of these fines has been to raise revenue (for example in 2005 the Maine Legislature made many fines mandatory as a way to balance the budget) and today criminal fines account for almost 30 percent of the Maine Judiciary’s reported revenue.

Like in Missouri, if the court becomes aware that a fine is delinquent, a warrant is generated and the individual is arrested and incarcerated until he or she can go before a judge. According to the DOJ report, issuing failure-to-pay warrants without any ability-to-pay determination is exactly what the Bearden decision warned against, as thousands of people are subsequently incarcerated for no other reason than their poverty. And the reality may be even worse in Maine than in Missouri - in Ferguson, an individual is typically released after seeing a judge; in Maine, judges may actually sentence someone to a term of incarceration to “pay down their fine” at a daily reimbursement rate.

Finally, like in Missouri, our system is punishing people just 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 chain of consequences, entrapping a person in a cycle of repeat arrests and incarceration – fundamentally disrupting their lives, families and employment – and, due to exorbitant late fees, further miring them in criminal justice debt.

We outlawed debtors’ prisons over a century ago and the courts have repeatedly affirmed that incarcerating someone for inability to pay is unconstitutional. Our jails should not be used as a tool to punish people for their poverty. Our judges, whose impartiality is crucial to the integrity of our entire legal system, should not be tasked with extracting revenue from defendants in order to meet the court's bottom line. Our law enforcement should not act as debt collectors, and arrests and warrants should not be used as a means for the government to coerce payment. Our criminal justice system should be focused on public safety and rehabilitation, not on revenue generation.

While it is easy to point the finger at Ferguson, here in Maine we have a lot of work to do. Mainers are being arrested and incarcerated just for being poor, violating their constitutional right to equal protection of the law. This is unacceptable, and so this legislative session we will be supporting a bill to prohibit incarceration for failure to pay fines. Sign up for our action alert list to learn how you can help end debtors' prisons in Maine.