Fines not Jail Time — A Better Solution to America’s Incarceration Epidemic

Incarceration_rates_worldwideAmerica has an incarceration problem.  The United States has only 5% of the world population, but 25% of the world’s prison population.  Since 1972 the US prison population is overwhelmingly for non-violent crime, especially drug offences.   Most American prisoners are poor and non-white.  Enforcement is overwhelmingly higher among non-whites and sentences are stricter as well.  Recent statistics show that many states pay over $40,000 per prisoner per year to keep them in jail — that’s more than what many teachers are paid.

WI_Incarceration_rates_by_race_0The social consequences for incarceration are even higher.  Our tough stance on non violent crime has wrecked havoc on our communities and broadened the race divide.  What is worse:  given the poverty of most prisoners and the reduced employment opportunities to ex-convicts, there is far less incentive for most ex-cons to stay out of jail.  When life in jail is better than life outside of jail, it becomes understandable why so many choose to return to prison.

There has to be a better way.  I think there is.  Instead of sending non-violent offenders to prison, we FINE THEM.  Money talks.  Money motivates. Just think about how many people take care to follow traffic laws for fear of a speeding or parking ticket?  How many people will park in the correct spot because they don’t want the expense of their automobile being towed?  If we levied hefty fines instead of jail time on non-violent crime, we would save taxpayer money while increasing revenue through the fines themselves — once we close one critical loophole:  bankruptcy.

StudentLoanDebtMap440x281In the United States filing for bankruptcy will discharge your debts — including fines for breaking the law — but it WON’T purge your student loans.  This of course is completely backward.  Student loans need to be forgiven after ten years.  Period.  No one should die still owing student loans.  Twenty years after I graduated student loans, I still owe more than it costs to buy a house in my local area.  Yet if I failed to mention a box of crackers at customs returning to the USA from a trip to Canada, I could get out of my $10,000 fine just by declaring bankruptcy.

This is backwards.

So let’s reverse this.  Let’s increase fines on criminal offences.  Let’s punish with fines instead of jail time.  Let’s prevent bankruptcy from discharging debts owed to states for criminal offences (even parking tickets).  And at the same time, let’s forgive all student loans after ten years, including and especially for those who graduated university before 2005.  You shouldn’t be paying student loans while receiving medicare — but you should be paying back child support if you skip out of your obligations.

To make the system even more fair, let’s make fines follow income resources with the wealthiest paying the highest fines for the same offences.  Earn less than $20,000 a year and your parking ticket (as a simple example) is $25.  Earn $25 million a year and your parking ticket is $2500.

We need fines to work this way because at present the wealthiest Americans feel they are above the law.  Of course they are:  they have loopholes they can use to avoid taxes.  And if they receive the same fine for the same crime as someone making minimum wage, they have no deterrent.  What is $100 to a billionaire?  They spend more than that on lunch everyday.

We can make the system fairer.  We can bridge the gaps between us.  We can close loopholes and use the power of money to reduce crime.  And we can use that savings to fund education and forgive educational debt.

We can and must do better, forgiving educational debt while using monetary incentives instead of costly jail sentences to reduce crime.

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