It’s summer. It’s beautiful outside. And inside Maine jails, inmates sit and bide their time. For many, their crime has nothing to do with violence, theft or dealing drugs. They simply can’t pay their court fines. Their real crime? It’s poverty.
Look at the arrest log for any jail in Maine, and every day you’re bound to see Maine residents booked for “unpaid fines and fees.” They likely served time for other offenses, and their sentence included paying a fine. But when they were released, they defaulted on their payment and had to return to court. The court sent them back to jail.
Incarceration and poverty in these cases are inextricably linked. Don’t pay the fine, and go to jail. Go to jail, and find it nearly impossible to get a job and pay the fine. Maine taxpayers are essentially paying to jail people who can’t get work. That’s not justice or fiscal responsibility. It’s insanity.
Knowing that Maine is paying to catch people in a cycle of incarceration, someone might reasonably suggest changing the law, to make it possible for low-level offenders to work off their fines instead of wasting time in jail. Why not have them do community service, completing tasks for municipalities and nonprofits, perhaps gaining marketable skills in the process?
It turns out, Maine already has such a law.
A judge may order low-level offenders to perform community service to repay part or all of an unpaid fine. The community service can be overseen by the sheriff’s office or a community monitoring agency that has a contractual agreement with the sheriff’s office.
To issue the order of community service, however, local sheriff’s departments have to agree to the plan. That means they must have a system in place — either through their own staff or another agency — to connect people with community service opportunities and monitor them to ensure they complete their time.
So far, only one county has a system in place to offer that alternative approach. Volunteers of America contracts with the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department to provide the ReFinement Program, which matches participants with community service sites, and tracks and supervises their work.
Since it began last December, it has had 78 participants — some who are still working or were removed for lack of activity — who have worked a total of 2,290 hours and paid off $8,450 worth of fines, said Program Manager Keri Alley. The program connects people with about 25 different local organizations, which have people perform a variety of tasks — from licking stamps, to shoveling snow, to serving meals to the homeless.
“When you’re having a number of people come through every week that are arrested on fine charges, it just makes sense. There’s a better way to do this,” said Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross. The program doesn’t cost the county extra money, as it fits within an existing contract.
Other sheriff’s departments across the state know about the alternative sentencing approach, and some are taking steps to implement it, but change comes slowly. Like most government-funded agencies, law-enforcement agencies often lack the capacity to make immediate changes, even if they will result in long-term savings.
It will certainly take persistent leadership from sheriffs to make the switch. It would also be worth it for the state to examine how to incentivize the duplication of programs like ReFinement. If the political will isn’t there to secure state funding, are there federal grants available to help?
Surely everyone can get behind a program that reduces reliance on jails, saves tax dollars and connects people in the community. Surely, there’s the will to break this cruel and illogical model that traps people in a cycle of poverty and incarceration.