The Constitutionality of Income-Based Fines

57 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2018 Last revised: 30 Dec 2018

Date Written: December 11, 2018


In America, fines are typically imposed without regard to income. The result is a system that traps low-income offenders in a cycle of debt and jail while letting rich offenders break the law without meaningful financial consequence. One-size-fits-all fines also fail to meet basic goals of the justice system: to treat like offenders alike, punish the deserving, and encourage respect for the law. Elsewhere in the world, however, systems that assess fines based on earnings have been around for nearly one hundred years. The most common model—known as the “day fine”—scales penalties according to a person’s daily income. These models are credited with ensuring proportionality in sentencing, improving the effectiveness of fines as a sanction, and even allowing fines to serve as an alternative to incarceration. They can also lead to startling results, such as a €54,000 speeding ticket assessed to a Finnish businessman. This Article is the first in-depth attempt to examine the constitutionality of a system of income-based fines that would levy significant financial penalties on the wealthy. Ultimately, it concludes that potential constitutional obstacles—arising primarily from the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment—are navigable, especially if a US system caps how high fines can go. As more people awaken to the burden that criminal justice debt imposes on the poor, this Article suggests that now may be an opportunity for a larger reconceptualization of financial sanctions—away from the inflexible fine and toward income proportionality.

Keywords: constitutional law, poverty, inequality, criminal justice, criminal justice debt, criminal law, Excessive Fines Clause, financial sanctions

Suggested Citation

Schierenbeck, Alec, The Constitutionality of Income-Based Fines (December 11, 2018). 85 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1869 (2018), Available at SSRN: or

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