Suppose we have two persons, person-A and person-B and let's say they both commit the same crime and go to jail. The law, to my understanding, applies uniformly/punishes uniformly disregarding their economic class, status etc. But is this really fair? The person with greater resources could have a much smoother time serving their jail time and then reintegrating into society than the other person. Certainly, it must be unfair to punish/'serve justice' to all equally.

Hence, I ask, are there any provisions for this type of situation in current legal systems? What is the name for them if they exist?

  • This conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Pat W.
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 10:36
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    is your title question the same as your body question? why isn't an answer to the title question like 'if you are poor according to definition X then you are by law entitled to a tax deduction or a subsidy of amount Y' ? does the title question really have to do with poor people who are criminals?
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 14:28
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    Excellent catch, took me a bit but I understand what you meant now @BCLC
    – Babu
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 3:23
  • guess justice is blind but still practices POFTP (preferential option for the poor). nice. equal punishment is not equitable punishment! great question.
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 9:30
  • "Certainly, it must be unfair to punish/'serve justice' to all equally." You may want to rephrase this. By definition punishing everyone equally is perfectly fair.
    – TCooper
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 17:14

4 Answers 4


Under German law, if you are sentenced to a fine because you committed a crime, that fine is measured in Tagessätze (day fine). One day worth of fines is the 30th part of your monthly income, adjusted according to the criminal's personal and economic situation. Basis for that is Criminal Code sec 40 (§ 40 StGB).

There is, however, no corresponding principle for prison sentences. The reasoning behind that is, that a wealthy person would hardly be able to "improve" their time in prison compared to a less wealthy one. In fact, they would "lose more money" in the meantime.

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    The final arguement doesn't make sense, usually the most wealthy are sooo wealthy that even if you put them in prison, their wealth is not much effected. Maybe this matters to middle class.
    – Babu
    Commented Aug 16, 2021 at 14:35
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    @Buraian: The idea of a prison sentence is not to decrease the prisoners wealth; otherwise the judge could have chosen to apply a (income-dependent) fine. Instead of decreasing wealth, a prison sentence is intended to decrease liberty.
    – MSalters
    Commented Aug 16, 2021 at 14:51
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    @Buraian The most wealthy, sure. But most people don't belong to that group, nor are they necessarily poor. Most well-off citizens still need to work. They might also lose their employments because of a prison sentence.
    – Robb
    Commented Aug 16, 2021 at 15:21
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    @Robb I am not a wealthy person by my society's standards. (I am wealthy by global standards, that is I have a home and ready access to food and water). If I was to go to prison, I have savings (which would still accrue interest), a support network of family and friends, and a career that will still be there when I get back. Many people are not in that situation. The consequences of their prison sentence would continue and be compounded by poverty once leaving.
    – Luke
    Commented Aug 16, 2021 at 23:54
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    @gerrit, fun fact: Finland has a similar system, but driving over the speed limit too much was fined by day fines, which lead to amusing evening press headlines of celebrities getting slapped with tens of thousands of euros for their excesses. (I say "was", since the current law made a mess of it.)
    – ilkkachu
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 21:17

Economic inequality isn't explicitly considered in criminal sentencing in the United States, which is why it doesn't really have a name with which I am familiar.

The global circumstances of the offender may be considered in sentencing (over which judges, especially at the state level, have broad discretion).

Contrary to the intuition of the question, generally speaking, less well to do people tend to receive more harsh sentences, despite the economic stresses that they may have been facing, while more well to do people tend to receive more lenient sentences because they can promptly provide restitution, appear to have better prospects for rehabilitation, can afford to pay for alternative programs, and are more relatable to the average judge.

One way to think about property crimes (from a sort of political/legal theory sense) is that they exist mostly to discourage conduct committed by people who have no capacity to compensate the victims for out of pocket, making a civil lawsuit an inadequate incentive. Situations where the wrongdoer usually has the capacity to compensate victims for are usually characterized in the law as civil wrongs, while situations where the wrongdoer usually can't balance the scales with a proportionate monetary punishment are usually punished criminally.

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    Wealthier people can also afford better lawyers to defend them. Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 11:15
  • @Crazymoomin And, while this has been shown pretty conclusively from empirical evidence to have little impact at the guilt/innocence phase, or in the charges to which plea bargains will be granted, it does have a big impact on the sentencing phase.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 15:57
  • And this is why mandatory minimums are unconstitutional outright.
    – Joshua
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 0:40
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    This answer is only accurate in america. Other countries have explicit provisions for modeling fines based on income (for example in germany, where ALL criminal fines are measured out in days of income rather then as a fixed number)
    – Magisch
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 10:51
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    @Joshua The constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences has been upheld repeatedly.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 19:14

In the U.S., fines may be reduced by a judge if the defendant is indigent and there exists several alternative means of prison so offenders can be released to work and return to jail for their non-work hours. These are usually allowed for low level offenses.

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    People commute Monday to Friday from jail to office and back to jail again?
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 7:36
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    @gerrit in some cases, yes. It's called an open prison. This opportunity is usually offered to prisoners near the end of their sentence so they can better reintegrate into the society. This often works much better than the classic method of just dumping people on the street when their sentence is over and expect them to somehow find a job and a home until evening.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 8:28
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    @Philipp sounds good — I didn't know they had those in the USA.
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 8:32
  • @gerrit great question. and...
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 9:31
  • @gerrit It can also be used for people who are non-violent offenders on minor charges in prison. The most famous example was Jeffery Dalmer, who was given work release while serving a one year sentence for second degree sexual assault and enticing a child for immoral purposes. Dalmer was employed in a Milwaukee based chocolate factory. At the time, he had also murdered 5 of his 17 victims (the courts were unaware of this at the time). One of his future victims would be, by complete chance, the younger brother of the boy he was convicted of molesting.
    – hszmv
    Commented Aug 18, 2021 at 13:19

Sentencing someone to prison serves three purposes:

  1. To punish the person for their offense
  2. To deter others from committing that offense in the future
  3. To protect society from that person committing the offense again

The time served/wasted is the punishment. Difficulty re-integrating into normal society is not part of the punishment. It's extremely difficult to predict or quantify, particularly for lengthy sentences, so trying to adjust it based on income would be a guess at best. It's also not clear that the length of the sentence is the significant contributing factor to this difficulty (reducing someone's 30 year sentence to 23 years won't help them much in that regard).

Reducing someone's prison sentence based on income would actively undermine the last two purposes. Poorer people would know that they'll only serve a partial sentence so the deterrent effect is diminished. The opposite - inflating the sentences of wealthy people - could lead to some excessive sentences that would most likely fall afoul of rules against cruel or excessive punishment. You don't want to end up with a system where a rich person spends more time in jail for getting into a bar fight than a poor person does for homicide. The severity of the offense rarely has anything to do with who the offender was.

Generally speaking, income isn't really a big factor into how likely someone is to re-offend, so society's need for protection from them doesn't really change based on how much money they have. We have decades of data on criminals and researchers have identified a number of factors that seem to be good indicators of how likely someone is to re-offend, such as the nature of the offense or the age of that person's first arrest. The parole system takes all of these factors into account and makes decisions to reduce people's sentences if they are deemed a low-enough risk.

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