« As penalty phase continues, new poll reveals local disaffinity for death penalty for Boston bomber | Main | Interesting analysis of "Watersheds" in state collateral retroactivity review »

April 27, 2015

Is US push for sentencing reform progressive enough to embrace progressive "day fines"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable New York Times article about fine punishment for speeding in Finland.  The piece is headlined "Speeding in Finland Can Cost a Fortune, if You Already Have One," and here are excerpts:

Getting a speeding ticket is not a feel­good moment for anyone. But consider Reima Kuisla, a Finnish businessman.  He was recently fined 54,024 euros (about $58,000) for traveling a modest, if illegal, 64 miles per hour in a 50 m.p.h. zone.  And no, the 54,024 euros did not turn out to be a typo, or a mistake of any kind.

Mr. Kuisla is a millionaire, and in Finland the fines for more serious speeding infractions are calculated according to income.  The thinking here is that if it stings for the little guy, it should sting for the big guy, too.  The ticket had its desired effect. Mr. Kuisla, 61, took to Facebook last month with 12 furious posts in which he included a picture of his speeding ticket and a picture of what 54,024 euros could buy if it were not going to the state coffers — a new Mercedes.  He said he was seriously considering leaving Finland altogether....

The Nordic countries have long had a strong egalitarian streak, embracing progressive taxation and high levels of social spending.  Perhaps less well known is that they also practice progressive punishment, when it comes to certain fines.  A rich person, many citizens here believe, should pay more for the same offense if justice is to be served. The question is: How much more?...

At the University of Helsinki, Jussi Lahti, 35, a graduate student in geography, said that he could understand why Mr. Kuisla was upset, but that he considered the principle of an equal percentage fair. And, he added, Mr. Kuisla “had a choice when he decided to speed.”

The size of Mr. Kuisla’s ticket nonetheless drew considerable attention here as television shows and newspapers debated the merits of Finland’s system, which uses a complex formula based on income to calculate an individual’s fines.  Some wondered whether the government should stop imposing such fines for infractions at relatively low speeds. Some suggested that a fine so big was really a form of taxation.  But the idea that the rich should pay heavier fines did not seem to be much in question. “It is an old system,” said Pasi Kemppainen, chief superintendent at the National Police Board. “It may lead to high fines, but only for people who can afford it.”

In fact, the Finnish “day fine” system, also in use in some other Scandinavian countries, dates to the 1920s, when fines based on income were instituted for all manner of lesser crimes, such as petty theft and assault, and helped greatly reduce the prison population. The fines are calculated based on half an offender’s daily net income, with some consideration for the number of children under his or her roof and a deduction deemed to be enough to cover basic living expenses, currently 255 euros per month.

Then, that figure is multiplied by the number of days of income the offender should lose, according to the severity of the offense.  Mr. Kuisla, a betting man who parlayed his winnings into a real estate empire, was clocked speeding near the Seinajoki airport.  Given the speed he was going, Mr. Kuisla was assessed eight days.  His fine was then calculated from his 2013 income, 6,559,742 euros, or more than $7 million at current exchange rates.

Someone committing a similar offense and earning about 50,000 euros a year, or $54,000, none of it capital gains, and with no young children, would get a fine of about 345 euros, or about $370.  Someone earning 300,000 euros ($322,000), would have to pay about 1,480 euros ($1,590).  When the “day fine system” was devised for petty crimes, Finland did not even have any speed limits on its roads. Those did not arrive until the 1970s....

Until he was issued the speeding ticket, Mr. Kuisla used his Facebook page largely to post pictures of his winning horses or the lobbies and bars of the hotels he owns.  But the ticket seemed to focus his attention on Finnish policies that he said discouraged entrepreneurs, apparently a reference to the country’s progressive tax system and its high inheritance taxes. High earners can face an income tax rate of more than 50 percent.  “Finland is now an impossible country to live in for people with a large income and wealth!” he posted on March 2.

But online comments in newspapers suggested a strong showing for the other side. “This says a lot about the times when the stinkingly rich can’t even take their fines for crimes, but are immediately moving out of the country.  Farewell, we won’t miss you,” said one post in The Helsingin Sanomat, a daily newspaper and website....

Mr. Kuisla’s $58,000 ticket is not even the most severe speeding ticket issued in recent years.  According to another daily newspaper, Ilkka, Mr. Kuisla himself got an even bigger fine in 2013 when he was going about 76 m.p.h. in a 50 m.p.h. zone.  That ticket was for 63,448 euros, about $83,769 at the time.  Bigger yet was the ticket issued to a 44-­year-­old Nokia executive in 2002, when he was caught blowing through Helsinki on his Harley motorcycle and was hit with a $103,600 fine, based on a $12.5 million yearly income.  

Both tickets were appealed and in the end reduced.  Usually, appeals are based on financial issues, such as a one­-time sale of stock that year. But judges have great leeway, experts said. Mr. Kuisla ended up paying 5,346 euros for the 2013 ticket.

Long-time readers know that I am a huge fan of economic sanctions, and I have long thought that the Scandinavian "day fine" approach to punishment for lower-level crimes to be much more fair and effective than short terms of incarceration. I think it is fair to claim (and perhaps complain) that these kinds of day fine operate more like taxes than like traditional punishments; whatever label is attached, I suspect that defendants (especially rich ones) drive much more carefully in jurisdictions where an infraction is likely to have a real financial bite. Among other potential benefits, a "day fine" approach to certain lower-level "quality of life" offenses might prompt law enforcement to concentrate more of their policing resources in richer rather than poorer neighborhoods.

Perhaps needless to say, I doubt the billionaires who support sentencing reform in the US on both the left (George Soros) and the right (the Koch brothers) are likely to get behind a progressive "day fine" approach to devising effective alternatives to prison. But maybe all the folks now protesting police abuses in Baltimore and elsewhere might consider urging police department to adopt such an approach to police discipline (with the monies, I would urge, going to victim restitution funds).

April 27, 2015 at 10:09 AM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e201bb0824819d970d

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Is US push for sentencing reform progressive enough to embrace progressive "day fines"?:

Comments

The owner of Amazon made $billion last week. If he speeds in Finland, the fine would be $3 millon. Sounds OK only if we can do the same to judges and lawyers making mistakes.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 27, 2015 11:28:19 AM

Not at all a fan of progressive fines. This can lead to cops having an incentive to watch rich people. For instance, if a 10-year-old SAAB is seen going 120 KM (72mph) and swerving in a 90Km zone (54 mph limit), and at the same moment, he sees a Lamborghini briefly going 100 (60mph). Who is he going to go after? The guy whose vehicle owner profiles him as someone who doesn't make more than €25,000, or one whose vehicl owner profile makes about €500,000 or more?

Progressive fines, just like taxation, are mechanisms so out of date they need to be eliminated.

Posted by: Eric Knight | Apr 27, 2015 12:28:31 PM

That sounds like a very unfair way of doing things. What is justice without equity and what is equity without justice? Just because I at some point in my life made a smart move which made me rich makes me punished more for the smallest of "crimes". I would have left Finland like yesterday!

Posted by: Stanley | Apr 28, 2015 9:26:12 AM

Since those Scandinavian assholes are into fairness, and even handed treatment:

These unfortunates lost $750 million today. If they speed in Finland, the judge should pay them $3 million.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-04-28/twitter-co-founders-just-lost-almost-750-million

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 28, 2015 11:52:40 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB