(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Thursday, January 02, 2003

There is a little piece in the new Harvard Law Review about a recent amendment to Alabama's statute on incarceration of people who fail to pay fines. If you are convicted of (or, more likely, plead to) a petty offense and receive a fine rather than a prison sentence, what happens if you don't pay the fine? You go to jail, that's what – and your time in jail "works off" your fine. How much is a day of liberty worth? Until recently, in Alabama, it was $15. (Though the statute before the amendment provided for even less value on liberty (go to sec. 15-18-62), Ala. R. Crim. P. 26.11 provided for $15 per day. Don't believe me? Read 116 Harv. L. Rev. 735, 736.) Now, the amended statute provides that the price of liberty is all the way up to about $25 per day, give or take. (If you don't have IE as your browser, this link probably won't work. Fight the power.)

If you sit and think about this for a while, you can come up with many interesting questions. Such as "I thought we did away with debtors' prisons a long time ago, didn't we?" (Yes, almost, but not quite.) And "Isn't liberty worth a whole lot more than that?" (It is to me). And "Are there enough safeguards in place to make sure that this doesn't just result in a system by which poor folks go to jail for minor offenses and rich folks don't?" (Short answer: no.) And "Come to think of it, why should the fines be the same for rich folks as for poor folks – why shouldn't the disincentive for (e.g.) speeding or getting into a brawl be the same across class lines, and why shouldn't that mean that the fine for such things should be calibrated according to the offendor's net worth?"

posted by sam 11:48 AM 0 comments


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