With a constable waiting to take her to jail, bookstore owner Melody Williams wiped tears and called a friend.

Williams told her to pay the shop's electric bill and rent. She also said she might have to pack up her apartment.

Struggling for composure, Williams, 36, explained that Senior District Judge Jene Willwerth was sending her to jail for overdue parking fines.

"It was a short and sweet hearing," recalled constable Karl Salisbury, who took Williams into custody at her store on May 31. "The judge said, 'You owe $2,300 collateral. You're being committed to Lancaster County Prison.' "

Willwerth then left the courtroom. Given no time to get her affairs in order, Williams was upset and breathing heavily, Salisbury said, as he transported her to jail.

"Obviously, there was some bad judgment on my part," Williams told a reporter after her landlord paid her fines June 8 and she was released. "But I'm not a flight risk. I'm not a danger to anybody, and I have no criminal record."

Records aren't kept on how often Lancaster County parking violators get locked up, but district judges do opt to incarcerate those who refuse to pay fines, District Judge Bruce Roth said.

Informed of Williams' case, county Commissioner Scott Martin questioned whether it's sound policy to imprison people for fines. The practice contributes to overcrowding at the county's aging 1,143-capacity prison.

"That hard cell space is very valuable to us," said Martin, who chairs the prison board. "We need to take a look at how we handle the cases of those who owe money."

Interim warden Paul Smeal was more direct. He called locking up people for parking tickets "inappropriate use of a hard cell" and "a waste of taxpayer money."

Williams faced 47 days in jail for fines and costs exceeding $2,300 on 11 tickets. Most of them were for parking without a permit last year on a block near her 106 W. Chestnut St. shop. She said she risked getting tickets to avoid parking garage fees.

Because she was struggling to keep Winding Way Books at Gallery Row, her new business, afloat, Williams said, she fell behind on the fines.

Nevertheless, for the first five months of this year, she paid $135 a month on average on her fines. In 2011, she paid a total of $1,088.

Not good enough, according to Willwerth. With brusque answers to a reporter's questions about the case, he said, "She owed an excessive amount."

He said he put Williams in jail pending a hearing on her ability to pay. But it does not appear such a hearing was scheduled, causing some attorneys to question whether Williams' rights were violated.

For each day behind bars, Williams earned a $40 credit toward her fines. At that rate, it would take 47 days before her release.

But Williams served only eight days because Dennis Cox, the landlord of her store, learned of her predicament and paid $1,500, the remainder of her fines. Cox said he trusts his tenant will pay him back.

"The whole thing seems so screwy to me," said Cox, an owner of downtown properties including Williams' modest 7,000-volume book shop. "I thought debtors prison went out with Charles Dickens."

Local legal experts questioned whether Williams' treatment followed the Pennsylvania Code, the state's manual of rules and regulations.

Rule 456, for example, says those who default on fines and costs are entitled to a hearing to determine ability to pay. If the judge does impose prison time, he or she is to set a date for reporting to prison unless a notice of appeal is filed within 30 days.

Rule 122 says counsel is to be appointed for the indigent in all summary cases - parking fines are summary cases - when a prison sentence is likely.

Williams said she was not informed of those rules.

"Parking tickets shouldn't be something they come and take you away for," Lancaster criminal defense attorney Richard MacDonald said.

In Williams' case, MacDonald said, "there's the appearance there should have been a report (to prison) date and an opportunity to file an appeal to Common Pleas Court before incarcerating her."

Lancaster attorney Steven Breit said, "What you're looking at here is 'Does the punishment fit the crime?' "

Willwerth is a senior district judge who retired last year after 20 years as Ephrata's district justice. He was substituting for Roth on May 31 because Roth was out of town.

Constable Salisbury said he brought Williams before Willwerth on multiple warrants that had been pending for weeks. He said Williams' warrants just happened to be "on the top of my pile." Because her shop was nearby, he knew it would be easy to bring her in.

"That's how I roll my day: efficiency," Salisbury said.

If Roth had been at his office that day, would he have imprisoned Williams? Roth said he's not sure.

"She was not a person on my radar in any way," he said. "But I will say these fines have to be paid somehow, and we can't possibly keep these payment plans going forever."

Roth said his staff set up payment plans, but Williams failed to make sufficient and timely payments.

"She just pushed it too far," Roth said. "She had too many payment plans that she defaulted on, too many hearings she didn't show up for. She had established herself as hopelessly unreliable."

Asked if putting her in prison was justice, Roth replied, "This was a harsh form of justice. I hope this was a wake-up call for her and a message to the citizens to please pay your tickets."

Williams said she wanted to pay the fines but had to juggle bills and simply lacked funds.

She, in fact, had gone to Roth's office May 31 and paid $80 about an hour before the constable showed up at her shop and hauled her before Willwerth.

"Parking tickets should not be a jailable offense," Williams said. "I know there are people who are going to say, 'That's what you get,' and I'm OK with that. But there's got to be some alternative. I would have gladly done community service."