Anti-Justice for the Rich Thief

Winona Ryder - Rich ThiefThe quote I ran today got me thinking of a hypothetical. Most adults who steal don’t do it for the thrill of it. They do it out of desperation. But for the rich thief (I mean it in the traditional sense), the motives, at least from society’s standpoint, are more vile — thrill seeking and other petty desires. Surely the desperation of the poor should make society more understanding of the the act. It should result in help more than punishment.

If a poor person simply can’t find a job, perhaps we should find them a job. If they have a drug problem, we should help with that. But instead, we are inclined to do the opposite: give them a criminal record so it’s even harder for them to find a job. Make their lives even worse so that drugs are the only widely available relief for their pain. Things are quite different for the rich thief.

An Actual Rich Thief

Let as consider something concrete: Winona Ryder’s 2001 shoplifting arrest. Now I’m sympathetic to her. Hell, I’m sympathetic to everyone. Humans have not create a social structure for themselves that provides a great deal of meaning. And there’s no doubt prosecutors went after Ryder more intensely than they would have if she had just been simply rich and not also a very big star. But even still, she didn’t get much in terms of punishment.

Remember: she went to trial. Under most circumstances, that would mean a very harsh sentence if she lost. And she did lose. According Wikipedia, she was convicted of grand theft, shoplifting, and vandalism — all felonies in her case, I believe. She was given three years probation, 480 hours of community service, and $10,000 in fines and restitution. After completing her community service, her felonies were reduced to misdemeanors.

Now obviously, if a poor person were given this judgment, it would have been really hard. According to Bankrate, she has a net worth of $18 million. So charging her $10,000 would be like if I left a courtroom and the judge asked if I had a quarter I could spare. Similarly, assuming Ryder got supervised probation, she would have no problem paying the monthly fee. And she wouldn’t have to work during that time.

Rich Thief Poor Thief

But my point is not that the punish she got would be far harder for a poor person to manage. My point is that a poor person would have gotten a far harsher sentence. So some poor junkie would have ended up with jail (if not prison) time and three years on probation. It’s very likely that their inability to pay their fines, restitution, and probation fees would have led them back into jail (if not prison).

It makes a lot more sense that a poor person would be a thief. We should really throw the book at the rich thief. But we don’t. And it isn’t just an issue of stealing. It’s true of every law there is to break.

I remember many years ago a very wealthy guy got his license revoked. This was after years of extremely dangerous driving. I think he had been arrested something like a dozen times. So he couldn’t drive. Oh well. As he left the court, a reporter asked him about it and he noted that he would just have his chauffeur drive him around until he got his license back. Note in this case that again, a poor person would doubtless have gotten a worse punishment. But even as it was, the sentence would have had a much greater effect on a poor person’s life.

It’s Still All About Economics

I’m not blaming judges for this. The system we have is part of a larger system. Just as it seems right that a poor person should have to pay the same for a speeding ticket as a rich person, we think that a poor person should have to pay the same in taxes when buying a car as a rich person. We have a screwy idea of what justice is. And it just so happens that this screwy idea makes the lives of the powerful easier.

How about that?

Government Fines Are Unjust

Payday Loans and Government FinesBeing poor in the United States generally involves having a portion of your limited funds slowly siphoned away through a multitude of surcharges and processing fees. It’s expensive to be without money; it means you’ve got to pay for every medical visit, pay to cash your checks, and frankly, pay to pay your overwhelming debts. It means that a good chunk of your wages will end up in the hands of the payday lender and the landlord. …

One of the most insidious fine regimes comes from the government itself in the form of fines in criminal court, where monetary penalties are frequently used as punishment for common misdemeanors and ordinance violations. Courts have been criticized for increasingly imposing fines indiscriminately, in ways that turn judges into debt collectors and jails into debtors’ prisons. The Department of Justice found that fines and fees in certain courts were exacted in such a way as to force “individuals to confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape.” A new report from PolicyLink confirms that “Wide swaths of low-income communities’ resources are being stripped away due to their inability to overcome the daunting financial burdens placed on them by state and local governments.” There are countless stories of people being threatened with jail time for failing to pay fines for “offenses” like un-mowed lawns or cracked driveways.

Critics have targeted these fines because of the consequences they are having on poor communities. But it’s also important to note something further. The imposition of flat-rate fines and fees does not just have deleterious social consequences, but also fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of the criminal legal system. It cannot be justified — even in theory.

–Oren Nimni
Fines and Fees Are Inherently Unjust