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June 19, 2014

Fines – a transatlantic problem

The imposition of fines is at the cornerstone of both US and English justice.  Fines are imposed on court users for the lowest level of offences (“misdemeanours” in US).  But the problem with fines is that, though relatively cheap to impose, those who need to pay them back are generally the poorest of the poor.  Both countries have huge problems getting people to pay court fines.  I suspect our system in the end loses money because the administration of processing and chasing and writing off fines probably costs more than the fines themselves.  In US its also a big problem, exacerbated because the welfare system is less generous, and because some judges resort to imprisoning those who have not paid their fines. This is both unconstitutional and against case law, but in pockets the practice persists.   A judge I met was very unhappy about the situation.  She didn’t imprison herself unless it was clear as day that the person could pay their fine, but was disturbed by the justice meted out to others.  Her passion for social justice impelled her to use her networks to influence policy and practice.  She thus persuaded the key stakeholders in her state to let her draft a protocol on the sanctions available for non-payment of fines. Imprisonment (apart from exceptional circumstances) was not on the list.  This is an example of how judges here improve the system.  Involvement with civic stakeholders is essential to success.