If you’re a uni student, a single parent, or a casual worker, you’ve probably experienced the sickness inducing dread of coming back to your car to find a $70-$100 fine taped to your windshield. Maybe you were two minutes later than the spot allowed you to be, maybe two hours – the fine will be same either way. For some of us, specifically low income earners, these fines can be financially crippling. If you’re on a single parent pension earning about $300 a week, a $100 fine could be the difference between making your rent for the week, or being defaulted on it. If you’re a uni student, that fine could mean you can only afford to eat instant noodles every day of the week – again. Consider the other side of that same coin – if you’re a lawyer who is taking home a couple of thousand dollars a week, a $100 fine is barely a drop in your monetary ocean. You can pay it, and it won’t really affect your livelihood that week.
This is where the problem comes in. Income inequality in a capitalist society results in those who are financially disadvantaged being far harder hit by things like fines than those who are well off.
This doesn’t just apply to parking fines – it also applies to things like speeding fines. The fact that a fine is a set amount no matter who you are means that some people feel like they can get away with things more than others. The same lawyer who is earning thousands a week would be more inclined to speed on the roads, because the financial detterent for him to not do so is miniscule. They may also be more inclined to park their car wherever they choose, because they can swallow the fine. On the other hand, lower income earners have to be far more careful and obedient in order to avoid the financial sting that comes with a fine. These factors deepen the divide of income inequality even further, and this is dangerous for a society.
The system as it currently stands is flawed at best, and classist at worst. But there is a better way.
Consider the fine system imposed on citizens of Finland. A fine is calculated based on each individual’s daily “spending money”, after their expenses like rent and food are taken out of their daily income. The resulting amount of “spending money” is then divided by two, and that half is considered a reasonable amount of money to deprive the person of. Based on the severity of the crime, the system has rules in place determining how many days that individual must go without half of their free spending money. For instance, going about 15 mph over the speed limit gets you 12 days, and going 25 mph over carries a 22-day multiplier. The fine is taken as a portion of your income whether you earn €80,000 a year or €800,000. In 2002, an executive at Nokia was fined the equivalent of $103,000 USD for going 45 in a 30 zone, and the NHL player Teemu Selanne incurred a $39,000 fine two years earlier. Sure, this may seem like a lot of money. But if you earn tens of millions of dollars a year, a $100,000 fine is no different to a low income earner copping a $100 fine, in terms of the financial inconvenience. The system is unarguably fairer, and is the norm in countries like Sweden, Denmark, Germany and France.
In countries like Australia, the U.S.A, and the U.K a flat rate fine is the norm, and has been for decades. It is no surprise that both the U.K and the U.S.A rank highly in a list of countries by income inequality. Conversely, the majority of European nations who impose a sliding scale fine system do not rank in that same list at all. While I’m not suggesting there is causality there, there could at least be a correlation.
Of course, it is very necessary for fines to be imposed in a civilised society. It helps to motivate people to do the right thing, and respect the laws of their government, or local council. But a fine should be as inconvenient for one person as it is the next; life is easy enough for high income earners, and hard enough for low income earners without throwing a flat rate fine system into the mix. It’s these types of institutions which keep the poorest members of our society down, and allow the richest to flourish. The punishment for a crime should affect anyone who commits it in the same way. Some may argue that flat rate fines are necessary for revenue, particularly for local councils. In Melbourne alone, $200 million worth of parking fines were distributed by local councils to motorists over a 12 month period. That’s a lot of money, through which a lot of great council initiatives can be undertaken. But if Australia were to adopt a sliding scale fine imposition system, the council would still be making that much revenue – because rich people commit offences too. All it would do would allow the poorest among us not to get so crippled by a misdemeanour fine, and stop allowing the richest among us to get away with things just because they know they can afford it.