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Phoenix to Match Offense to Offender’s Daily Income : Crime and Punishment: A ‘Fine’ Idea

Associated Press

In an experiment at fitting the punishment to the criminal as well as the crime, Maricopa County judges are preparing to borrow from their European counterparts by imposing fines tied to an offender’s daily income.

“We think over the next 10 years, as counties and states struggle with jail overcrowding, the fine will become a more and more attractive option for judges,” said Judge Greene of the Vera Institute of Justice, which is running the test of “day fines” for nonviolent felonies that starts in December.

Even with such alternatives as community service and home detention, she said, the number of inmates has doubled in the last 10 years.

Day fines were first tired in Finland in 1921, and are widely used in Western Europe. Courts in Sweden, England and West Germany impose fines as the sole penalty in the 80% to 85% of all convictions, Greene said.

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By contrast, judges in the United States tend to impose fines below the statutory limits in the interest of consistency, which reduces their deterrent effect and penalizes defendants with lower incomes, she said.

“The word ‘afterthought’ is used,” said B. Michael Dann, presiding judge of the county’s Superior Court. “The thinking is that too many judges think of the fine after the other penalties and think, ‘I’ll just tack this on, you can pay $500,’ -- that kind of attitude.

“Among the purposes of the study is to help come up with a system of means-based fines tied both to the severity of the offense and the defendant’s ability, or anticipated ability, to pay . . . thereby impacting the wealthy and the ne’er-do-well forger in roughly the same way.”

Maricopa County’s will be the first U.S. court to test the idea for felonies. In a test in misdemeanor cases last year in Richmond County on New York’s Staten Island, day fines for theft ranged from $25 for a welfare mother to nearly $4,000 for someone with annual income of more than $35,000.

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The fines are a perfect vehicle for restitution--federal judges frequently turn over fines to victims--and they safeguard defendants’ rights because of a two-step process in setting the amounts, Greene said.

First, the judge sentences an offender to a certain number of “fine units” based on the severity of the offense but regardless of income. The next step is assigning a value to each fine unit as a share of the defendant’s daily income. The judge then multiplies that value by the number of fine units.

Day fines would work best in local jurisdictions, “where the individual most likely has a steady job and will continue to work in the community,” said Jeffrey Washington of the American Correctional Assn. in Laurel, Md.

The New York-based Vera Institute, a privately funded, organization credited for research that persuaded Congress to enact a bail-reform law in 1966, picked Maricopa County Superior Court because of its reputation.

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“The court has been a leader nationally . . . in the development of techniques for speeding case processing and controlling disposition time,” Greene said. “It also has been a site for experiments--bail guidelines for one--and currently is involved in an experiment with urine surveillance of criminal offenders.”


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