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A sliding scale for criminal fines and traffic tickets?

To a brain surgeon or corporate executive, a speeding ticket is no big deal. They probably have that much cash in their purse or wallet. When a retail clerk or maid gets that traffic ticket, it hurts. It may mean the rent is late or they can’t buy food. It can have a domino effect.

Some countries have a sliding scale for criminal fines, based on the person’s income. That makes all citizens accountable and increases revenue. Should we be doing this in the U.S.?

Flat-rate fines are unfair

The American criminal justice system is biased in many ways against the lower classes. Flat-rate criminal fines, for example, are patently regressive. Low-income people suffer more financial strain from fines, and are more likely to be ticketed or arrested in the first place.

For many poor people, it’s a cycle they can’t escape. For example, if you can’t afford car repairs, you are much more likely to get pulled over for speeding or a broken tail light. This results in more fines, which means less money to get your car fixed, which means you are still a target for the next cop that comes by.  Also, once a person is pulled over, police are more likely to find drugs or other violations. More fines and court costs.

Progressive fines are fairer and a stronger deterrent

The punishment should fit the crime, right? The punishment should deter others, right? This is true for jail or prison time. But it is not true for criminal fines and traffic citations. There is no incentive to abide by the speed limit if you can easily afford a ticket. It only becomes a problem if you accumulate enough citations to trigger license suspension.

Finland, Argentina, Germany and other countries use progressive fines. Rather than a fixed fee, criminal fines are levied as a percentage of income. This system has three potential advantages:

  • It seems fair – The doctor and the janitor both feel the pinch for the same offense.
  • It increases revenue – High earners would owe higher fines and are more likely pay.
  • It deters crime – Scofflaws would think twice if the fine costs thousands of dollars.

There could still be a cap. A million-dollar fine for a misdemeanor or traffic violation is excessive even for the uber-rich. But the current system unfairly burdens low earners and lets high earners off too easy. Several studies indicate that wealthier people are, on average,  more likely to violate traffic laws and engage in unethical and criminal behavior. It doesn’t help that there’s little incentive to follow the law.

Crazy idea or sounds about right?

Do you think fines should be scaled to what you earn? Or do you think that progressive fines are just a tax-the-rich scheme?

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