ACLU of Maine Calls on Legislature to End Debtors’ Prisons

LD 951 Will End Jail Time for Being Too Poor to Pay Fines

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
May 5, 2015 11:45 am

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AUGUSTA – The ACLU of Maine today urged legislators to support a bill that will eliminate modern-day debtors’ prisons by prohibiting incarceration as a punishment for failure to pay a fine.

LD 951, “An Act to Restore Judicial Discretion in the Administration of Fines,” will help prevent people from getting trapped in the criminal justice system and instead put them back on track to becoming productive members of society. The sponsor of the bill is Rep. Mark Dion (D-Portland).

“Holding people in jail is enormously expensive to taxpayers – it actually costs more than the money we lose in unpaid fines,” said Rep. Dion. “Instead of trapping people in the criminal justice system for being too poor to pay, we should be spending our limited resources on policies that actually keep us safe.”

In 2005, the Maine legislature began making most fines for criminal offenses unwaivable, even when an individual can prove he or she is unable to pay. This coincides with a general legislative trend towards increasing fines and attaching new fines to criminal violations.

Under the current system, failure to pay a criminal fine results in a warrant for the individual’s arrest. The individual is then held in jail until he or she can appear before a judge, has his or her driver’s license revoked, faces mounting fines and fees, and can face additional hardships that come with being incarcerated such as losing his or her job.

“Locking people up for failure to pay fines creates a two-tiered justice system that subjects poor people to harsher penalties than people who have enough money to pay their fines,” said Bill Higgins, an advocate for Homeless Voices for Justice.

LD 951 would free up state personnel and fiscal resources currently tied up in this never-ending cycle. It would also bring Maine law in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bearden v. Georgia in 1980 that imprisoning someone for failing to pay his or her debts, despite making bona fide efforts to do so, is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

“These modern-day debtors’ prisons are unconstitutional, unfair and counterproductive,” said Oamshri Amarasingham, policy counsel at the ACLU of Maine. “The Supreme Court has spoken and it is time for Maine to listen.”

The Judiciary Committee will hear public comments on LD 951 in a hearing this afternoon.

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