I have no problem with the idea of a court ordering someone pay restitution to a victim. Making an aggrieved party whole seems like exactly the kind of stuff a decent justice system should try to do. Probation also makes sense to me as a sentencing option. If we care about rehabilitation, services and some sort of supervision seem essential. I even understand the need for incarceration as part of the sentence in some cases. Although jail and prison terms are routinely and unfairly ordered to excess, I can see the logic in removing a dangerous person from society. I understand retribution and the idea that there may be a deterrent effect in taking away someone’s liberty. Also, when it comes to time, we’re all on equal footing. A day is the same no matter who is serving it. The poor, of course, tend to get sentenced to more days, but that’s another post altogether.
Unlike those sentencing options, I’ve never much liked the idea of court-ordered fines. It’s easy for me to understand why restitution, supervision, and even incarceration are available options to a sentencing judge. I’m not inherently skeptical about a judge’s motivation in ordering any of those as part of a sentence. That isn’t the case with fines.
I think there’s something fundamentally wrong about a judge with a cushy job and lots of power ordering a poor defendant to give money to a taxpayer-funded court. It’s always struck me as problematic that a judge can lawfully order another person to pay the judge’s employer. It only seems worse to me taking into consideration the fact Arizona has elected judges in many jurisdictions as well as strange things like judicial productivity credits. I think it’s ridiculous that we give the power to order fines to people whose re-election hopes and salaries can hinge on the financial situation of the entity to which the fines are going. It should come as no surprise to anyone that courts frequently bury defendants in all types of fines, surcharges, fees, and assessments. If I can punish you by making you give me and my boss your money, why wouldn’t I?
Yesterday afternoon, I saw a typical exchange between a judge and a defendant as I waited to get a new court date from the clerk in a misdemeanor jurisdiction. It went something like this:
Judge: You haven’t made any payments on your fine.
Defendant: I don’t have any money. I can’t find work. My kids are hungry.
Judge: That’s what you said last time.
Defendant: I’m really trying, I promise. The economy is bad. I’m trying to find work.
Judge: What’s changed between this time and last time?
Defendant: Nothing. I was trying to find work then too. I’m bound to find something sooner or later. Please give me more time.
Judge: You said that last time. Why shouldn’t I just throw you in jail and get it over with?
Defendant: My family needs me. We can’t even afford a fridge. Or a stove. We’re behind on rent. I need to find work.
Judge: I’ll give you one more chance. No matter what, you’re going in next time unless you pay your fines in full
Defendant: Thank you, I promise I’ll do my best.
Given the court and the hour of the day, I imagine the defendant owed the fines in an old DUI case. He had probably been ordered to pay the minimum fine and surcharge, which total over a thousand dollars. He probably had to pay a couple hundred dollars for mandatory alcohol screening plus hundreds more for the recommended alcohol classes. He probably had to pay for his own incarceration costs too. Because of the conviction, if he wants to drive, he probably has to pay about a hundred dollars a month for the mandatory interlock device, and he’d probably have to pay hundreds of extra dollars each year to have special SR-22 insurance. Like with most people, his DUI at some became a money pit. I’m sure it also made it especially tough for him to find work, as lots of jobs won’t hire people with DUIs.
The discussion I heard really bothered me, just like it always does. I hear it all the time. The court, which has ordered a fine, is demanding payment. The defendant, who probably couldn’t even afford decent representation, is stuck trying to pay what most people would consider an enormous amount of money. I’ve found that judges rarely show even the slightest hint of understanding in such situations. I often notice quite the contrast between the shabbily-dressed defendant with work-worn hands and the judge with an expensive watch and delicate hands peeking out from beneath his black robe. I think about how sick it is that a guy who’s walking home to his house with no fridge because he’s too poor to get his license reinstated or buy appliances could be ordered by a judge who’s probably driving his Lexus back to a big home in Paradise Valley to pay a fine to a court housed in a multi-million-dollar building. The court doesn’t need his money. It means the world to him and his family though.
I think the message is supposed to be that crime doesn’t pay. It’s too bad that message is false. Crime does pay. If you get away with it or if you’re the government, that is. Regardless, even if the message was true, it wouldn’t matter. That guy with the DUI lost his license. He went to jail. He attended court then classes then victim impact panels. His life was disrupted and he and everyone around him suffered. Now, some rich guy is threatening to mess up his life and his family’s life a little more because he’s too poor to line the coffers of the rich guy’s even-richer boss. With the crime long since past, the message is not that crime doesn’t pay, but that the system and the people in it can be very, very cruel. It may not have the same ring to it as crime doesn’t pay, but at least it’s true.