Saturday, June 23, 2012

Should the rich pay higher fines?

  • In 2010, a Swiss court fined a Ferrari driver £ 182,000 for speeding. It had decided to impose a fine that fitted both the crime and the personal wealth of the repeat offender. What do you think of such an approach?
It is easy to see why fines which are pegged to affordability are appealing. The point is simply that a fine of, say, $1,000 has a more severe impact on the poor than on the rich.
So to ignore affordability is in effect to discriminate unfavourably against the less well-off.
But it has not been, to my knowledge, seriously contemplated in Singapore.
  • Why not? What are some of the drawbacks of having such a system?
I can think of some reasons which might stand against such a move.The first is that it will contribute another layer of complexity to the sentencing process.
Affordability has to be defined and policed. Income is an obvious indicator, but do we take into account other kinds of assets such as CPF, and do we make allowances for dependants?
If assets out of Singapore are also to be taken into account, problems of verification arise. This is not to say that it is impossible to find some sort of solution to these practical issues, but it becomes a question of whether it is ultimately worth the while.
A second issue is how far we should take the principle of equalising the impact of sentencing.Should we, for example, take into account the fact that a jail term of one week to someone of modest means is likely to have a far greater impact than another offender who is wealthy and whose family does not have to depend on his week's wage to survive?
If we do, it might mean that the wealthy are to be sentenced to longer jail terms for the same offence.
It is possible administratively to reform only the law regarding fines and to leave imprisonment intact, but if we are acting on principle, we need to see if the logic extends legitimately to all the other kinds of punishment.
  • What pitfalls have countries that have tried progressive fines faced?
Another thing which seems to have bothered judges in the United Kingdom, which experimented with progressive fines for a short while and then abandoned it, was the potential of such a system to carry the logic 'too far'.
Thus, in an affray - fighting in public, which is an offence in the Penal Code - where a rich person is fighting with a poorer opponent, and where both are equally blameworthy, the poor offender might be fined $600, but his wealthier opponent $60,000 for essentially doing the same thing.
At the core is a very fundamental question of exactly what rich people are entitled to pay for with their money.
It appears to be uncontroversial that they can dine in finer restaurants, buy more expensive cars, stay in better accommodation, pay for better health care, and pay for better or more prestigious education for their children.
In the context of the legal system, they are also entitled to pay for (what they think to be) better lawyers to conduct their civil actions or criminal defence. They can also better afford to lose and pay the costs that this would entail.