What is wrong with what a recent New York Times opinion piece terms “one-size-fits-all fines” in criminal law cases?
In a word, plenty.
As that article notes, a penalty that is precisely the same for all offenders (a fixed-amount ticket for a driving-related infraction, for example) might be nothing more than a slight wrist slap for one individual, while spelling near financial disaster for another.
That’s not fair.
And fairness — that is, evenhanded and impartial enforcement outcomes doled out to all criminal defendants — is something that state and federal laws across the United States must be unwaveringly focused on at all times to ensure integrity in the justice system. That lacks when, say, a speeding ticket equates to nothing more than pocket change to one person while simultaneously bankrupting another.
The above-cited article notes a central irony that looms large whenever all persons convicted of a crime must shell out the same amount of cash in atonement.
And that is this: Although that seems facially fair, financial reality actually makes it the epitome of unfairness. It can only be justified, notes the Times commentator, “if you ignore the consequences of a fine on the life of the person paying it.
If you hang with Bill Gates, five grand out the window following a DUI conviction is peanuts. If you’re living in hand-to-mouth mode, it can destroy your life.
That discrepancy — which reveals itself over and over across California and the rest of the country — flips core criminal law concepts like punishment and deterrence on their heads. For one demographic (the ultra wealthy), a case outcome can be virtually irrelevant in its triviality. For another (candidly, the poor), the same result can “destabilize lives.”
That disparity needs to be eliminated by a more equitable process that links punishment to a person’s actual income, asserts the Times piece. Until it is, flat fines will “deter the wealthy less than everyone else.”