If I’m found guilty of a crime, part of my sentence might be a fine. If I don’t pay the fine, I can be put in jail for non-payment. Allowing people the option of working off fines through community service seems at first like it might be a good option for poor people. It’s not.
The trouble is, the community service option can be more punitive than the unaffordable fines. Choosing community service to pay fines rather than going to jail is like treading water as the rain keeps pouring down. It’s the illusion of freedom and keeps people in the poverty cycle, while allowing all of us to believe they are being given a chance. In either case, the conviction is on their record. Jail is extreme, but at least it’s honest.
Let’s start with the money. Under Maine law, offenders can be ordered by a judge to receive a credit against their unpaid fine of no less than $25 for every eight hours of community service work completed. That could work out to $3.13 per hour. In practice, judges may agree to greater reimbursement, but why open the door to incredibly low pay?
A $100 fine could take 32 hours to repay. That’s a lot of time for a person living in poverty. But $100 is also a lot of money, well-intentioned people will argue. Time, however, is more valuable.
Community service as a part of a punishment in any situation — not just as a way to pay off fines — is a bad idea. There are the logistics of what is essentially a job. It’s difficult enough to arrange for child care and transportation to get to real-paying jobs. Using up personal resources to fulfill a community service requirement can make paid work take a hit. Which will take priority when a choice has to be made? Lose a job, or risk more jail time?
Less concrete but just as important is the impact forced community service can have on individuals and the wider community.
With mandated community service, you have a “volunteer” there because they have to be, or they risk punishment. Resentment will be likely. Giving back to our community as a real volunteer strengthens social bonds and investments in the greater good. Giving back to the community by force isn’t really giving back to the community, it’s cheap forced labor, and everybody involved will know it.
The idea of offering community service as a way to pay off fines initially sounds good to those of us who want to stop the revolving door between living poverty and the criminal justice system. Most of us would also like to find a way to spend less on keeping people in jail and prison when they could be productive members of our society.
The best way to keep poor people out of the criminal justice system’s ugly dance with poverty — and also the best way to decrease the expense of housing and monitoring criminals — is to put fewer people in the system in the first place.
Legalizing drugs that are currently illegal would be an effective way to reduce the number of people in the criminal justice system. Using funds collected from the taxes on those now-legal drugs to invest in both education and housing would also decrease the number of people who end up in the criminal justice system.
We should also increase dramatically the use of deferred disposition and/or administrative release. In deferred disposition or administrative release, a judge essentially puts a case on hold for a period of time, typically a year, and the defendant has that time to prove to the court that they will behave lawfully. When they return to their case, if they have met the conditions of the agreement, they can withdraw their guilty plea, or their sentence will be considered complete.
Most directly related to the unfair burden fines place on people living in poverty, we need to reduce fines even more dramatically than judges do now. We should also eliminate probation fees because $10 to $50 a month is a lot of money to a lot of people.
If we continue to offer community service as an option to pay off fines, the rate of “pay” — how much money is worked off per hour — should be substantially higher.
It’s true that the criminal justice system treats poor people more severely than people who have money; that being in the system adversely affects an individual’s chance at work, housing, or benefits; and that non-payment of fines for crimes with guilty pleas or judgments can lead people right back into jail. But giving them an option of working for less than $4 an hour to pay back those fines simply isn’t a good solution to any of these problems.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.
An earlier version of this OpEd incorrectly stated that the alternative sentencing program in Penobscot County pays offenders $3.70 an hour for their community work. It pays $10 per hour.