In an op-ed in the Times, lawyer Alec Schierenbeck argues for “progressive fines”:
“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.”
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is..
Do you agree that “progressive fines” are a more ethical policy than having the same fines for the same violation, regardless of the offender?
I’m very interested in the response. The answer isn’t extremely clear to me—yet—but I’ll explain where I’m tilting.
Like so many progressive ideas aimed at leveling society and eliminating the injustices of life, this one ignores human nature, the inevitability of the slippery slope, perverse incentives, and most of all core American ideals and values. I know…know…that this approach would quickly metastasize, because all inequalities are regarded by progressives as a crime against nature. Shouldn’t the privileged, that is, whites and miles, be punished more severely that women, blacks and “people of color”? Surely those with disabilities shouldn’t have to pay fines as high as those who are “abled.” Elite college grads should pay more than those from state schools, who should pay more than community college grads, who should pay more than mere high school graduates. What about IQ? Isn’t a relative dim wit less culpable and likely to have less earning power than Silicon Valley tech whiz? An surely those poor, “good illegal immigrants” shouldn’t be fined for minor offenses as harshly as citizens. We know that the whole progressive theory of the World As It Should Be and How To Gain Power In It relies on dividing society into competing tribes, and progressive fines is just one more sneaky tool to do it.
No doubt about it: if you are less successful and have fewer financial resources, misfortune his harder. The idea behind progressive fines is to even the risks, and that is a slippery slope as well. Doesn’t the principle argue for lower standards of workplace conduct for low-paying jobs? A firing offense for a manager, such as coming to work drunk, shouldn’t be a firing offense for a victim of capitalism’s inequities, should it? And what about lowly workers with wealthy families? Surely they should be judged more harshly that blue-collar workers living paycheck to paycheck.
The logic behind progressive fines seems like an extension of the rationale behind affirmative action. If black kids and white kids have lower grades because they spent high school goofing off and getting high, the black kids’ grades should be good enough to get them into Princeton any way, because they need that degree more. I think I can be convinced that progressive fines are not a continuation of the rejection of core American ideals, but it will be hard. This nation was envisioned on the ideal of equality among citizens, and that we should strive to give all an equal opportunity to succeed, encouraging success and achievement, not penalizing them, or rewarding failure.
I would prefer to go in the direction of eliminating lenient sentencing for crimes based on the criminal’s status in the community, or that he is a good father, or that he has contributed to society and the community. Prison is often more devastating for the wealthy and successful, and my response to that plight is “Don’t break the law, then.” I think that same applies to fines and the poor.
Or as Tony Baretta said, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”
Here’s a poll: