When Fines as a Criminal Penalty Are Inequitably Distributed

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.”

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