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.

  • 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
    Jul 22 '15 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
    Jul 23 '15 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
    Jul 23 '15 at 3:32

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 goal 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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