The Constitutionality of Income-Based Fines
33 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2018
Date Written: February 21, 2018
When Americans break the law — whether it’s a minor offense like littering or a serious crime like felony assault — they tend to face the same financial penalties, no matter their income. The consequence is a system that puts low-income offenders in a cycle of debt and jail while letting rich offenders break the law without financial consequence, and which fails to meet basic goals of the justice system: to treat like offenders alike, punish the deserving, and encourage respect for the law. Outside the United States, however, systems that assess fines based on earnings have been around for nearly 100 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. But by their very nature, day fine systems can lead to startling results: in 2015, for instance, a €54,000 speeding ticket was assessed to a Finnish businessman caught going 65 miles per hour in a 50 zone. 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 U.S. system caps how high fines can go. As more people awaken to the burden that criminal justice debt imposes on the poor, the 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
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