New Maine program allows people having trouble paying court fines to work them off

Posted Feb. 28, 2014, at 5:54 p.m.
Last modified March 01, 2014, at 8:48 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — After being convicted of drunken driving and misdemeanor theft, Alan Cunningham owed nearly $1,000 in court fines. By making payments of $30 a month, it would have taken him three years to pay off his debt.

As of 4 p.m. Friday, Cunningham, 47, of Bangor had worked off his fines through a new program by volunteering 85 hours at the Together Place Social Club. Participants such as Cunningham earn $10 toward their fines for every hour they work.

Cunningham’s fines stemmed from convictions in 2010 for operating under the influence of intoxicants and in 2012 for misdemeanor theft, according to the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office. He was sentenced to 12 days in jail and ordered to pay a $700 fine in 2010 and fined $300 in 2012.

The ReFinement program, implemented in mid-December, is designed to keep people such as Cunningham from being arrested on warrants for not paying their fines and to provide volunteers for service organizations and to municipalities in Penobscot County, according to coordinator Brandee Trask of Volunteers of America. It is the first program of its kind in the state.

Cunningham said Friday, as he worked off the last of his fines, that he volunteered at a couple of different nonprofits before going to the Together Place, located on Second Street in Bangor.

“I do a little bit of everything,” he said. “I bring food in, prepare meals, help other volunteers. It felt right to work here. It’s going to the greater good and helping people a little less fortunate.”

Cunningham said he called Volunteers of America looking for opportunities and learned later about the ReFinement program.

“I would have been able to pay off my fines but it would have taken a long time,” he said.

Cunningham is not alone. As of Dec. 31, 2013, almost $25.4 million was owed in unpaid court fines in Maine, according to information provided by Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the state judicial branch. Nearly $2 million of that is for fines imposed before 2000.

As of the end of last year, total revenue collected in fines by the judicial branch since the state-run District Court system replaced the municipal court in 1961 was more than $546.78 million. Of that, about $32 million was collected prior to June 30, 2000.

The system could not provide the total number of people who owe unpaid fines, according to Lynch.

Lynch did not express concern over a loss of revenue if people who are having trouble paying their fines are allowed to work them off.

“The judiciary’s chief concern, as always, is to apply the laws as enacted by the Legislature,” she said in an email earlier this year. “Presumably, the Legislature has considered the fiscal implications of its actions. If individuals were not paying over a long period of time, then presumably there would not be a significant loss of revenue.”

She said the Administrative Office of the Courts has not quantified the cost of issuing a warrant for unpaid fines.

“The cost is largely staff time,” she said.

The cost of executing warrants and arresting individuals falls primarily on entities like the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office and jail. A program that would allow people to work off their fines rather than be arrested when they were unable to pay them has been something Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross has been trying to implement for years.

The law does not allow judges to impose community service in lieu of fines except in juvenile cases. A law passed last year allows judges to revise a judgment for people who are having difficulty keeping up with payment plans so they can work off fines doing volunteer work.

Last year, more than 650 people were brought into the jail on warrants for unpaid court fines, Ross said in January.

“They appear before a judge, receive up to $50 credit toward their fine per day they’ve been incarcerated, set up a payment plan, then, get rearrested when they can’t make payments and don’t come to court and ask for a change in payment arrangements,” Glenn said. “We need to end that cycle.”

Defendants who have made payment arrangements but need to lower payments or miss a payment are required to come to court to ask a judge to OK revised payment plans, according to Superior Court Justice William Anderson. When people do not do that a warrant is issued for their arrests for the charge of failure to appear but it is most often referred to as failure to pay fines.

The Legislature passed a law last year that allows judges to let people who qualify for the ReFinement program work off their fines through volunteer work. Participants still must pay court fees and surcharges, according to Keri Sratton Alley, the VOA program manager and Trask’s supervisor.

Defendants convicted of sex offenses or violent felonies may not participate, Trask said Friday.

Each Friday afternoon Trask goes to the Penobscot Judicial Center to meet with people who would like to participate in the ReFinement program. A judge makes the final decision about who qualifies and who does not.

Currently the program is only available to people who owe fines in Bangor not at other courts in Penobscot County.

“We’ve had 27 people in the program,” Trask said Friday. “Five completed it and three asked for extensions. A few signed up but have not done any work yet. If they owe more than $2,500, we try to give them six months to do 250 hours of volunteer work. I try to get people to commit to 10 hours a week.”

The majority of the 27 people in the program still are working off fines.

Trask said that she tells people they are expected to work, not simply show up. She coordinates closely with organizations to verify people are fulfilling their commitments. Several have dropped out or been removed from the program but most participants are doing well, Trask said.

“One person had to work 57 hours,” she said. “He did it in a week. He got those 57 hours done and he got those fines off his back.”

Trask said winter weather has made it difficult for some defendants, many of whom face transportation and child care challenges, to get to their volunteer jobs. She said Friday that many organizations want people for outdoor projects this summer but don’t have work during the winter months and mud season.

Groups that are accepting volunteers are happy with the program, Trask said.

“Having volunteers from this program has been a huge resource for us because they are very reliable, very hard working, dedicated workers,” said Angie Brown, administrative assistant for the Together Place, which serves clients with mental health and substance abuse issues. “They’ve been invaluable here.”

Cunningham said Friday that even though he’d worked off his fine, he planned to continue volunteering at the Together Place.

“My hopes are that we can actually keep these people out of jail but also make a difference in the towns that people live in by helping in those communities because taxpayers pay a lot of money [to keep people in jail]”, Trask said. “If we could get more towns on board that would be useful. I don’t think it matters that volunteers have a criminal history. These people are living in those communities anyway. Others just don’t know about it.”