NYC May Start Charging Fines That Vary With Offender's Income

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by Tyler Durden
Sunday, May 14, 2023 - 09:00 PM

New York City council is considering a plan to impose fines for parking and other violations that are adjusted based on the income of the offender. Depending on one's point of view, it's either a step toward more proportionate justice or a deeper embrace of Marxism. 

The proposal for a pilot program to test the concept comes from South Brooklyn Councilman Justin Brannan, whose colorful background includes being a hardcore punk guitarist for the bands Indecision and Most Precious Blood, and working in alternative-energy venture capital at Bear Stearns.  

New York City Councilman Justin Brannan (Matt Miller via New York Post)

Brannan didn't invent the varying-fine concept. It's been tried in a few US jurisdictions and several European countries. Typically, those programs are used when punishing felony or misdemeanor violations, but Brannan's scheme would apply to mere civil offenses. 

If the program moves forward, it would apply to at least 10 local laws, and Brannan would like the higher rates to apply only to those with incomes over $500,000, whom he characterizes as comprising the dreaded top "1 percent." 

"Fine amounts are arbitrary as it is so why should a public school teacher and a billionaire pay the same fine?" asked Brannan in an interview with Reason. For instance, a $115 ticket for a working family of four could be a real hardship whereas a $115 ticket for an individual making $500K is a joke and does absolutely nothing to change their behavior."

This type of income-dependent financial punishment is called a "day fine." Here's how it was explained by the Vera Institute of Justice's Judith Green in a 1990 paper

"First, the court sentences the offender to a certain number of day-fine units (e.g., 15, 60, 120 units) according to the gravity of the offense, but without regard to his or her means. Then the value of each unit is set at a share of the offender's daily income (hence the name 'day fine'), and the total fine amount is determined by simple multiplication."

"Studies have shown that day-fine programs typically lead to more people actually paying their fines, in part because penalties that were once out of reach for low-income and middle-class residents become more manageable," reports the New York Times

That's an attractive dynamic for a cash-strapped, migrant-smothered city like New York, which currently has $2 billion in civil fines that have gone unpaid since 2017. At the same time, it sounds like it would be a bureaucratic nightmare to administer. 

If the purpose of a fine is to inflict pain and change behavior, one might -- perhaps grudgingly -- see some logic in the day-fine approach. Then again, many of those fines are just victimless-crime, government piracy dressed up in the name of "public safety." 

Worst of all, the day-fine scheme is all too reminiscent of the overarching Marxist slogan, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."