Why aren’t traffic fines income-adjusted?

Leaving aside the basic fairness issue, surely if deterrence is part of the aim, the diminishing marginal utility of wealth matters.

I’m wondering this for the usual reason, alas. Hopefully it’s been long enough since the last that I can take another happy sojourn through traffic school.

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11 Responses to “Why aren’t traffic fines income-adjusted?”

  1. Thomas B. Says:

    Well, in some countries they are. For example, in Finland someone was fined $200,000 for 25mph over the speed the limit driving.

    http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/070318/26fines.htm

    And fines in the tens of thousands of dollars are apparently not uncommon.

  2. Stephen Bank Says:

    That makes a great deal of sense!

    But I think it would be extremely difficult to pass a law like that in the english speaking world. Too easy to frame it as “less punishment for poor people”. Which technically, it is!

  3. Steve M. Says:

    Why not just say the fine shall be .005% of the violator’s income from the previous year? Turn the flat tax argument around! You’d have to greatly simplify the income tax laws to make it work. But someone making $40,000 pays $200, and someone making $4 million pays $20,000, but there’s a perfectly meaningful sense in which they’re paying the same fine. Of course, you’d then have the spectacle of trials in traffic court over the size of the violator’s income.

  4. Steve M. Says:

    Never mind. Having read the article linked above, it seems that’s basically what Finland does. There’s a segment of the US population that wouldn’t accept this. (Question: why don’t those people support a head tax rather than an income tax?) But even if you could get it off the ground, you’d have to reform the personal income tax laws to make it work.

  5. Steve M. Says:

    More interesting question is, Why aren’t all fines income adjusted? Think of the purposes of punishment, as opposed to compensation or restitution:

    (1) to make the offender suffer, because his suffering is good. In that case, punishments should be income-adjusted, because the morally relevant fact is the money’s meaning to the offender, not some objective assessment of the gravity of the offense as reflected in a (crude) monetary assessment.

    (2) to deter the offender, or third-parties who learn about the punishment, from committing the same or similar offenses in the future. In that case, the morally relevant fact is again the money’s value to the offender.

    (3) to incapacitate the offender. This one is iffy. You’d need to take as much money (and, presumably, only as much money) from the offender as is necessary to prevent him from committing the same or similar offenses in the future. There’s no straightforward connection between incapacitation and the marginal utility of money.

    Thinking out loud: Another question is why this isn’t done with all punishments. The upshot, I think, would be that you adjust prison sentences in light of an offender’s sensitivity to incarceration (for some, any term of incarceration really is impossibly cruel, but for others it’s not), but that you replace prison with other punishments.

    Related issue to think about: I think one of the most interesting features of fines and restitution as punishment, especially if fines are income-adjusted, is that requiring money payments forces the offender to sacrifice something of real value to himself by making him do something to produce the money. He has to get another job or sell some of his property. In order to do that he has to spend some of his leisure or sacrifice something that he considered valuable enough to acquire. It ties the punishment to the offender’s actual suffering in a way that inflicting suffering by uniformly locking everyone in a box does not.

  6. Steve M. Says:

    God, I feel annoying, but I should note that was meant to read: “The upshot, I think, would not be that you adjust prison sentences in light of an offender’s sensitivity to incarceration (for some, any term of incarceration really is impossibly cruel, but for others it’s not), but that you replace prison with other punishments.”

  7. Paul Gowder Says:

    Steve, I’ve realized that I never respond to any of your comments. It’s inevitably because I agree with you.

  8. Arvita Says:

    It isn’t that it is less punishment for poor people, but more punishment for rich people. No matter who you pull over, it will take 10 minutes for a ticket to be written. Would you rather bring in $200 for your ten minutes or $30? I think people in nice cars going 80 will end up getting pulled over more often than people in beaters doing 95. Paul, I think you should suck it up and join the 11-99 club.

  9. Paul Gowder Says:

    Ooh, so that’s what the CHP equivalent of the police protective league is! I’m totally joining that sucker right now.

  10. Arvita Says:

    I find your moral flexibility fascinating.

  11. Paul Gowder Says:

    Turns out you can’t join and get a license plate frame any more anyway. Perhaps I’ll just have to have some printed off.

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