To me, the term "debtors' prison" immediately conjures images of 19th century England and of something found in the pages of Charles Dickens novels. However, as a recent special segment by NPR revealed, de facto debtors' prisons – where we imprison people for failure to pay fines – are increasingly common practice throughout the United States today.

In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Beardon v. Georgia that imprisoning someone simply because they are too poor to pay is illegal under the U.S. Constitution. The case involved Danny Beardon who, in 1980, was found guilty of burglary and receiving stolen property and sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay $750 in restitution. However, after losing his job, Danny was unable to get work and soon defaulted on his payment. A lower court revoked his probation and sentenced him to serve the remainder of his sentence behind bars. However, the Supreme Court ruled that imprisoning Danny simply because he could not afford to pay his debts, despite making a bona fide effort to do so, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In other words, sending someone to jail just because they are poor is not only unfair, it is unconstitutional.

Thirty years later, our criminal justice system has more than tripled in size.  And as our prison population has skyrocketed so too has the cost. Corrections is now the second fastest growing category of state budgets, second only to health care.  Lawmakers, aware of how politically unpopular it is to raises taxes for prisons, have begun looking for new ways to plug gaps in the budget and have become increasingly reliant on fees and fines. These fees and fines come in many different forms, including restitution, court fees, room and board while incarcerated, and public defenders fees. Often there are also mandatory minimum fines, set by the legislature (and recently increased in Maine), when one is found guilty of certain crimes - meaning our judges have no discretion to lower the fine if they determine a defendant cannot afford it. Late fees frequently accrue with every missed payment.

As the NPR report Guilty and Charged and the ACLU Report In For a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons find, those who cannot afford to pay are being sentenced to a term of incarceration to “repay” their fine at a daily reimbursement rate. So, those who cannot afford to pay are being punished twice - once for their crime, and again for being too poor to pay - thus facing harsher penalties than richer people for identical crimes.

So what about Maine? In the state with the lowest incarceration rate in the country are people really going to jail just because they cannot afford to pay a court fine?

According to the weekly arrests report available on the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department website, in the last two weeks, 40 people were booked into the Cumberland County Jail on the sole charge of "Failure to Pay a Fine."  Many folks were facing multiple "failure to pay" charges, many of whom listed their primary home address as "transient."

In the United States we have one of the most punitive justice systems in the world. We routinely separate people from their homes and families for low-level, non-violent offenses and lock them away in deplorable conditions of confinement. And yes, it is enormously expensive. But rather than come up with creative (and in this case unconstitutional) schemes to finance our system of punishment, it's time to reform the system.

Judge Learned Hand once said, “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice.” 

We cannot have separate systems for the rich and the poor, where justice is rationed only to those with the ability to pay. Rather, we must strive for a system where the scales of justice are actually balanced and equally serve us all.