Income Inequality in the Justice System?


If you’ve ever gotten a traffic ticket before, you know that it’s a big hassle. The offense sits on your driving record, your insurance rates go up, and you might even have to go to court and pay a fine.

For a first offense, it might not be much, but consecutive offenses can really rack up.

For many Americans, the experience is more nuisance than ruin. But, according to attorney Alec Schierenbeck writing in The New York Times, for those on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, even one traffic ticket can send that person’s life spiraling downward.

For people living on the economic margins, even minor offenses can impose crushing financial obligations, trapping them in a cycle of debt and incarceration for nonpayment. In Ferguson, Mo., for example, a single $151 parking violation sent a black woman struggling with homelessness into a seven-year odyssey of court appearances, arrest warrants and jail time connected to her inability to pay.

Scheirenbeck proposes an alternative — a system of proportional fines relative to one’s income.

Finland and Argentina, for example, have tailored fines to income for almost 100 years. The most common model, the “day fine,” scales sanctions to a person’s daily wage. A small offense like littering might cost a fraction of a day’s pay. A serious crime might swallow a month’s paycheck. Everyone pays the same proportion of their income.

For a justice system committed to treating like offenders alike, scaling fines to income is a matter of basic fairness. Making everyone pay the same sticker price is evenhanded on the surface, but only if you ignore the consequences of a fine on the life of the person paying. The flat fine threatens poor people with financial ruin while letting rich people break the law without meaningful repercussions. Equity requires punishment that is equally felt.

Flat fines also fail to meet basic goals of punishment, like retribution and deterrence. Punishment is partly an expression of a society’s desire to inflict pain on those who break the law. But giving wealthy offenders a mere slap on the wrist makes a mockery of that objective. And while punishment is supposed to prevent undesirable conduct from happening in the first place, flat fines deter the wealthy less than everyone else.

When wealthy people are excused for bad behavior that less wealthy people are not, the double standard never sits well. But does it make sense to claim that "low-level offenses" be treated like simple mistakes or does that lead toward the path of lawlessness?

What do you think of this proposal? Is it fairer for people to be fined different amounts for the same offense based on their ability to pay?