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Who Can Afford to Break the Law?

By: Matt Tibbitts

It’s Monday morning. 10:28 A.M. By now, most Americans have made their way to work, but at least two missed that 9 A.M. start. One, a powerful corporate executive; the other a barista at a local coffee shop.

The executive speeds down the highway, risking a measly $150 speeding ticket to avoid repercussions at her job, yet the barista knows that the $150 ticket means he might not be able to afford food or rent this month. Both face the same risk of being late to work, yet only one fears the implications of breaking the law. Why is one of them willing to break the law with no fear of punishment while the other must follow it? The barista simply can’t afford not to.

So if we want to see equal justice applied to these two people for breaking the law and speeding, it is time we change the way we assess fines in this country — and abroad. It is time for income-based fines.

A scaled, income-based system would allow the fine to have the same level of impact on the well-being of both individuals and prevent the wealthy one from breaking the law with near impunity while the poorer one is forced to comply based on their limited income.

This idea works by assessing the well-being each person gains from some additional money. While the barista, making around $25,000 a year, would feel a significant increase in well-being from an extra $2,500, the corporate executive making upwards of $150,000 a year would barely notice the mere $2,500 gain. Instead, she would likely need around $15,000 — a similar increase of 10% to her larger salary — before she experiences the same increases in well-being as the barista. This phenomenon is easily applied in reverse when we examine people losing money and experiencing punishment on an even level.

If they were charged a day’s wage instead, the barista would pay significantly less than the executive in dollars, but it would be the same debt paid to society in terms of the amount of work they did as punishment. This system would be effective for most people, and for individuals with no incomes or difficult to calculate incomes, a minimum fee could be instituted.

And while this system would require more work to implement, from gathering income data, assessing unique fees, and opening a Pandora’s box of debate as to what is considered “income,” the time is an investment well made. In doing so, we can help those that are the worst off in our society by reducing the cycle of poverty in the justice system. In fact, this is not a new idea, with a similar system existing in Finland where it has found widespread support among the average citizen, but much distaste from the richest citizens, who cry absurdity at their $103,000 speeding tickets.

The poorest in society that cannot afford to pay their speeding ticket often end up in prison—so much so that over 72% of incarcerated persons earn less than $22,500 per year. Yet the wealthier are actually more likely to break the law while driving, as shown in a study from the University of California at Berkeley. A graph from the study (Figure 1) shows the percentages of cars that cut off other vehicles in a four-way intersection in part A and pedestrians in a crosswalk in part B. The vehicle statuses are ranked 1 to 5 with 1 being the lowest status, or cheapest car, and 5 being the highest status or most expensive car. The graphs clearly show that as vehicle status increases so does the recklessness of the drivers — a problem that may be rectified by income based tickets.

We cannot continue to allow the wealthy to break the law and endanger their fellow citizens simply because they can afford the fee. All citizens deserve to experience the same level of justice across the law, and traffic fines are no different: they deserve an equally significant fine.

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