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Some Philosophical and Sociological Aspect of Fines

NCJ Number
Revue de science criminelle et de droit penal compare Issue: 3 Dated: (July-September 1979) Pages: 487-496
L Lernell
Date Published
9 pages
Although increasingly applied in both capitalist and socialist countries as alternatives to imprisonment for minor property crimes, pecuniary penalties raise many ethical, philosophical, and sociological questions.
Originally developed as a more civilized alternative to the law of retribution, pecuniary penalties for minor offenses, especially property crimes are currently experiencing a resurgence and appear to be the wave of the future. The appplication of a fine is based on the double principle of restitution and atonement with regard to the crime victim (if any) and to society at large, rather than on a crude price list of offenses. It would be impossible to set a fair price on a victim's emotional trauma and wounded dignity, which should be weighed together with his or her financial loss. The idea of repaying society is also a delicate matter, because at least part of a fine paid by an offender goes into some government's treasury, which unavoidably profits, however inadvertently, from crime, thereby raising the specter of a mercenary justice. On the other hand, in today's money-worshiping society a penalty directed at an offender's wallet is bound to have a deterrent effect if it is commensurate with the offender's ability to pay. The principle of equal protection under the laws requires that, the richer the defendant, the higher his fine should be. For example, the new Polish criminal code prescribes that a defendant's fine be set by the judge only after an accurate assessment of the combined earning powers of the defendant and all the members of his family. The valid objection that such a sentence penalizes not only the guilty party but also the innocent members of his family can only be answered with the inescapable reality that all penalties penalize the families of the offenders, worst of all when the latter are sentenced to prison terms, thereby automatically losing the opportunity to earn a living. To make matters more equitable, especially in capitalist countries where economic inequalities are much greater than in socialist societies, financially-able offenders should never be allowed to pay their fines in a lump sum, then forget all about it. Just like their less solvent counterparts, they should be required to pay their fines in monthly installments, thereby being reminded of their transgressions over a longer time period. This arrangement would also have a psychological deterrent effect, preventing the offender's conscience from being too quickly assuaged.