A female pensioner was jailed for a month because she refused to pay a fine after being caught evading the TV licence.
The 63-year-old was one of hundreds sent to prison last year for non-payment of court fines – many of which were imposed for minor offences such as littering, begging and even having a dirty windscreen.
In some cases people who owed as little as £10 were sentenced to a week, an investigation by this newspaper has discovered.
It is estimated that it costs around £3,000 to send someone to prison for four days.
It means tens of thousands are being spent every week punishing people for non-payment of fines worth just a few pounds.
Paul Givan, who chairs the Assembly's justice committee, claimed the system "has lost the run of itself".
"It is ridiculous that we are still sending people to prison for defaulting on fines," he said.
An analysis of sentences for fine defaulting has revealed:
• 21,000-plus cases where people were sent to prison for fine defaulting in the last five years. Some people will have been in custody more than once for non-payment.
• 4,964 cases involving 1,700 people during 2012 alone – a 30% rise on the 2008 figures even though a major report called for the practice to be minimised.
• 227 cases where people were jailed for non-payment of a fine for TV licence evasion, including the 63-year-old woman who was sentenced to 28 days.
• 377 cases last year where the amount owed was £50 and under. In 240 instances the fine was £30 and under.
• 50 cases of pensioners being jailed, including a 78-year-old man sent to prison for a week after he refused to pay a fine of £155.
• Scores of cases where people were jailed for non-payment of fines for minor crimes.
In the most extreme case, a 19-year-old was jailed after he didn't pay a £55 fine imposed because he had a dirty windscreen.
This week Justice Minister David Ford revealed that, on average, 34 people are in jail every day solely for not paying a fine.
In the last 12 months that figure topped 1,700 – equivalent to a third of all jail admissions.
During 2012 alone, offenders were sentenced to a total of 47,918 days behind bars – the equivalent of 131 years.
A 27-year-old man was jailed for seven days in January 2012 because he didn't pay a £15 fine for begging.
In another case, a 20-year-old was jailed for seven days last February because £9.25 was outstanding on a fine for consuming alcohol in public.
A third was jailed for a week for an unpaid £30 fine for a littering offence.
The sentences ranged from one day to six months, although the vast majority were seven-day terms.
In most cases the offender would have served less than half their sentence. Yet in almost every case the cost of jail will have exceeded the money owed.
More than half of the 4,964 fines were worth more than £195 – the average daily cost per prisoner in Northern Ireland.
In 1,322 cases the sums involved were less than £100.
The ages of those jailed ranged from a man just turned 18 to the 78-year-old.
Last year Mr Ford revealed he would be introducing proposals to create a civilian enforcement system aimed at tackling fine defaulters without sending them to prison.
Proposed measures include deducting offenders' salaries or benefits if they refuse to pay their fine.
Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, Mr Ford said people who default on fines should not go to prison.
"The cost to the justice system, both in financial and administrative terms, demands that we must arrive at a better way of dealing with this problem," he said.
Mr Givan, a DUP MLA, said the cases highlighted and underlined the urgent need for reform of the system.
"There are much easier ways for society to be compensated for people who quite rightly get fined," he said.
"We need to find ways for people to pay that debt to society much easier than a couple of days in prison, which is hugely expensive. The system has lost the run of itself."
This can’t go on. Here’s how I aim to make changes
By David Ford
Fine default in Northern Ireland presents a significant challenge to the justice system.
It is simply untenable to continue to allow an increasing number of people to receive a custodial sentence for non-payment of a fine, some of which are for relatively minor offences.
We need to do better by helping people to avoid default, and where default arises, to provide a range of options so that people do not end up in prison.
The cost to the Northern Ireland justice system, both in financial and administrative terms, demands that we must arrive at a better way of dealing with this problem.
That is why I, as Minister of Justice, have consulted on a range of proposals aimed at improving the system — proposals that I will be introducing to the Assembly in this mandate.
My proposals will be both preventative and diversionary, as we must consider new methods for tackling those who simply refuse to pay their fines and opt for a short stay in custody instead.
Over the past number of years there have been an increasing number of people who are ending up in prison simply for the non-payment of a fine — over 1,700 in the last financial year, nearly one-third of all prison receptions.
I have said before that we should only use prison when it is absolutely necessary.
The evidence shows that short prison sentences are less effective than non-custodial alternatives, and I will continue to make the case for these.
Last year I launched supervised activity order pilot schemes in Lisburn and Newry as an alternative to custodial sentences.
These pilot schemes have recently ended and are currently undergoing evaluation, but early indications are that the schemes had value in diverting some people to community alternatives.
My proposals are not just about targeting those who cannot pay their fines, but also to put in place effective systems to support people in meeting their obligations.
Before a person gets into default there will be preventative powers to directly deduct appropriate amounts from their income.
If they do get into default, there will be diversionary provisions to allow them to do a form of service or activity in the community, rather than automatically going to prison.
My proposals provide a range of options that I believe will create a fine enforcement system that is effective, efficient and fair — a system that makes sure people pay fines but has appropriate sanctions when they don’t.
I want to see a situation where people don’t go to prison for fine default.
Prison should only be a last resort — evidence and common sense support that.
David Ford is the justice minister for Northern Ireland