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Most non-violent crimes are punishable by fine or imprisonment. But the maximum term of imprisonment has often struck me as far out of line with the maximum fine. For example, even if I am a minimum-wage worker I could pay the maximum fine in a small fraction of the time I would spend behind bars if sentenced to the maximum imprisonment. Examples:

Is there a custom or reason behind these ratios?

One explanation I can imagine is that the real ratio of fines-to-imprisonment was initially comparable, but dates back so many generations that inflation has taken them far out of proportion; and, further, whenever a new law is passed the existing penalties are referenced without thinking about the fact that one side has deflated.

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  • Keep in mind that there really is never a situation where a court is seriously deliberating between imposing the maximum jail/prison sentence and the maximum fine; there are two separate modes of punishment, but that doesn't mean they're supposed to cover the same range of situations.
    – cpast
    Commented Jul 22, 2015 at 22:11
  • @cpast: If you can elaborate on that it sounds like an interesting answer! Perhaps I should add the subquestion: "What is the judicial theory behind the use of fines vs. imprisonment when both are options?" E.g., is it something like the fines cover the "light" spectrum of punishment and imprisonment is for the "heavy" end? So that in general incarceration of any term is considered a harsher sentence than even the maximum fine?
    – feetwet
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 0:15
  • @feetwet With regard to inflation, in 2008 I used the US CPI to calculate the value of a dime when the song Brother can you spare a dime was written. The result was $1.49. A law that imposed a $500 fine then was specifying The equivalent of a fine of roughly $7500 now. IIRC my father's first job out of law school was with the IRS in 1961 at a salary of $5,500 a year.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 3:32

2 Answers 2

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As @cpast says in their comment, these are not equivalent punishments, the fine is for the lower end of the scale where incarceration is not warranted and the maximum gaol term is for the most egregious cases.

That said, your supposition is almost certainly correct; statutes tend to be a "set and forget" thing, legislatures have a lot to do and going back to old laws to update fines in line with inflation is probably not high on their list of priorities.

In order to overcome this problem all jurisdictions in Australia have adopted the Penalty Unit; fines in statutes are stated as a certain number of penalty units and the value of a penalty unit is set in various ways that usually do not require a vote in parliament.

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The pattern identified in the question is generic in American criminal statutes, and contrary to the "set and forget" theory, it continues to be true even in states that have recently amended the dollar amounts in their criminal codes.

Also, usually, the relevant statute states for all but the most serious offenses, that a court may impose on a defendant the maximum authorized incarceration sentences, the maximum fine, or both. So, frequently, in the case of a moderately serious offense, it isn't an either/or choice, and instead the fine is imposed in addition to the incarceration sentence if one is imposed.

Incidentally, this is not true globally.

Some jurisdictions, particularly in Scandinavia and Northern Europe utilize the concept of a "day-fine" in which a fine is set at a level comparable to one day of income for the convicted defendant who continues to live in the community working in order to pay it. In those countries, day-fines are the normal punishment for minor offenses (e.g. speeding or shoplifting, for example) and for what would be low level felonies in the United States. Incarceration is then reserved largely for very serious offenses (with terms of incarceration that generally are much shorter than those in the U.S. for comparable offenses) and for defendants who represent a clear and present threat to the public if allowed to be at large (basically violent offenders with weak ties to the community).

In countries with a day-fine system, there is an either/or choice and days of incarceration and day-fines are exchanged for each other one to one from within the sentence authorized upon conviction for an offense.

The motivation for the U.S. pattern of fines has other factors behind it.

One is that for a large range of offenses, convicted criminal defendants in the U.S. usually don't have much of an ability to pay after meeting their bare minimum of daily needs for food and shelter (and not infrequently are homeless and/or unemployed). So, imposing large fines often gives rise to futile and wasteful government entity fine collection efforts, may increase recidivism by creating a need for money for essentials that the convicted defendant can't pay since his or her money went to fines, and can reduce the funds available for restitution or a civil judgment that actually benefits the victim related to the same course of conduct.

Second, for the vast majority of misdemeanor offenses where there is both a potential term of incarceration, jail sentences, when imposed are typically far, far shorter than the maximum sentence.

For example, it would be common in many U.S. jurisdiction for the normal sentence for a misdemeanor or ordinance violation to be a fine and time served over a weekend awaiting a hearing before pleading guilty (plus restitution and court costs and/or community service), and for a sentence of incarceration imposed when someone does not plead guilty and/or the gravity of this particular offense is particularly serious or there is especially great community outrage, to be a week to 30 to 90 days for an offense for which a sentence of 1 year in jail is authorized by law.

Limited jurisdiction court sentencing judges who handle misdemeanor and ordinance cases have immense sentencing discretion which they rarely utilized to the fullest.

Effectively, what legislators are doing in this kind of system is saying that they are bothers to figure out what sentence is actually fair for a host of minor offenses and are delegating the authority to make that decision to judges in the form of routine custom and practice in high volume courts, and are giving parties an incentive to cooperate with judges rather than bogging up the system by being difficult without exceptionally good cause for doing so.

Likewise, in the case of minor felonies with maximum incarceration sentences authorized of three years, two years, or one year, for example, a majority of criminal convictions in U.S. state courts (at least when there is a plea bargain to the offense) are disposed of with a probation sentence plus fine, restitution and court costs, or with an actual sentence of incarceration of 30 days to six months or so, to be actually served in a local jail rather than in a state prison, rather than anything approaching the maximum sentence authorized by law.

When the amount of the fine for an offense level is viewed in relation to a typical sentence actually imposed for that offense after a plea bargain and with no notable aggravating factors, the fines are typically much more proportional to the typical incarceration sentence than they are to the maximum prison sentence, which is often only really imposed with full force on defendants who go to trial in cases where there are also exceptional aggravating circumstances.

It also isn't uncommon for a state to have a separate set of fines that are significantly higher for corporations that are convicted of crimes, which represents what a fine would be if it was the exclusive punishment that a court had available to it to impose for a crime.

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  • You note here that sentences tend to be far more severe when a defendant does not plead guilty to a charge. That doesn't sound very just. I should probably post a follow-up question to learn what the moral reasoning is for that.
    – feetwet
    Commented Apr 23, 2022 at 19:12
  • @feetwet I am simply noting here the empirical truth. There is a lot of academic literature for and against the existence of the discrepancy.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 18:58
  • Yeah, I've been pondering this further. Without getting into the philosophy I am thinking that guilty pleas are generally entered in an agreement with the prosecutor, and judges do not generally reject those. So it's not accurate to think of a sentence in a plea agreement as being drawn from the same distribution as the sentence in a contested charge.
    – feetwet
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 19:09
  • @feetwet It varies by jurisdiction, but that's not entirely true either. Prosecutors and defendants agree on a charge and sometimes on a recommended sentence, but the judge is not bound to honor the recommendation and sometimes, not commonly but not terribly rarely either, doesn't follow the recommendation.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 19:14
  • Ah ha, then maybe we're getting towards a good follow-up question: Is it at least true that if a judge does not agree with the plea bargain then he cannot impose a more onerous sentence than that stipulated in the bargain? I.e., if he rejects the sentence agreed to by the defendant, then can't the defendant always choose to withdraw the guilty plea?
    – feetwet
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 21:19

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