Fines, as a tool of law enforcement and ensuring justice, are currently pointless. Consider, for instance, receiving a fine for driving while distracted by an electronic screen
(which, somehow, doesn't include GPS units, but that's another argument altogether
... especially considering smartphones are much more likely to be used as GPS units these days). The fine in Ontario is going up to $280. The potential consequences of driving under the influence of distraction ranges from property damage through death (particularly horrifying when it is a pedestrian or an actually responsible citizen in their own vehicle). I will not currently argue against the appropriateness of a $280 fine given the risks (I think the fine amount is low), but lets just work with that as a number.
Suppose you are in a single income household and earn minimum wage in Ontario (just increased to $11/hr) and are lucky enough to have a full time job (or jobs, amounting to 40 hours per week). Your monthly income (before tax) will be $1760 (and you'll be scraping to make ends meet, at best...). A $280 fine is 16% of your monthly income (I'll write it as 0.16 for later reference) or about 1.3% of your annual income (0.013). A huge financial hit by any measure. Definitely a tangible punishment to such a person (fyi, 8.1% of Ontarians in the workforce were working for minimum wage as of 2009 [about double what it was in 2001]... the federal government hasn't published numbers since then, fyi, they used to be published annually... but, that too, is another story). Let's turn now to a household at the median
income in Ontario: in 2011, it was $73,290/year, which is about $6100/month. Considering that most of these households would likely also have access to credit, a $280 fine is already likely an "expense" that could easily be absorbed into their budget... it is 4.6% of their monthly (pre tax) income (0.046... still noticeable, but it definitely would fall within most such people's "discretionary" spending limits) or 0.4% of their annual (pre tax) income (0.004). In 2011, there were roughly 576,000 households
earning $200,000 or more in Canada... let's call it half a million (that's a sufficiently large number, in my opinion, to constitute a "segment of Canadian society"). To these people, a $280 fine (let's say they have an average income of $300,000 ... which is probably a decent guess for now given that over 300,000 of that half a million have incomes greater than $250,000), would be a petty annoyance at best (I would use the slightly more emotionally charged word "laughable"). With monthly
incomes of $25,000 (do the math), such a fine would be about 1% of their monthly pre-tax income (0.01) or 0.09% of their annual pre-tax income(0.0009). I would argue that a $280 fine would provide no tangible punishment whatsoever to anyone in that income bracket.
Thus, my subject of "the sliding scale of punishment"... those with lower incomes are disproportionately burdened with needing to adhere to the laws of the land, while those who have higher incomes are insulated from the impacts of transgression because of their wealth.
But my momma told me not to bitch about something unless I had something positive to suggest as well. The solution to the above situation seems self-evident to me (has for a while, but I'm just writing about it now). The key to the solution is the word in the last paragraph: disproportionate. Or more appropriately, to make the system proportionate to ensure that the burden of abiding by the laws is shared equally amongst all citizens no matter what their income (with one caveat, for the very poor, because I'm not that
much of a bleeding heart, which I will discuss shortly). Rather than set a fixed amount for such fines, a percentage of household income would be used. Using household income rather than personal income is a tricky decision already, but I'm thinking of individuals who live in wealthy households as often benefiting from the family's overall income without necessarily needing their own income (children and non-working life partners, for instance). It's really trying to tie financial burden to ability to pay. On that note, I would also see it instituted that any money transferred to someone (or the value of any resources contributed) from some other part of their family network to defend themselves against or to pay for such fines would have to declared as taxable income
in the year it was received... again, ability to pay. Details aside, I hope you at least accept the principle of "financial ability", however it is accounted for, as that is the core of the argument.
So, numbers time again, and let's stay with the "$280" fine amount... obviously, it won't be a $280 to everyone anymore. It's also going to be a little more thought-provoking having to set the "base amount" that the proportional "actual amount" would be calculated from. Let us, for a moment, assume that $280 is
the base amount we start with. The only readily available statistic we have access to that can also be considered a baseline with regard to financial ability of the overall population is the median household income. As stated, in Ontario, this was $73,290/year and we calculated $280 as being 0.4% of their annual pre-tax income. That single income household earning minimum wage discussed earlier makes about 29% of the median household income. Applying that proportion directly to our $280 base amount, we get about $81. Going the other direction, a household earning $300,000 per year is making 409% (about 4 times) the median household income. Applying that proportion, we get a fine of about $1146. Fyi, this is the first time I've actually calculated the numbers and my first blush is that they look like they could accomplish what I was hoping for. A quick glimpse into the stratosphere: about 2500 households in Canada earned more than $2.57 million per year, and had an average income of $5.1 million per year, so let's use that number. $5.1 million is 6958% above the median income, and that that income level, the $280 fine would scale to a whopping $19484 (and before you go *whoa!*, do remember that a $20,000 fine to such a household would have the same financial impact as an $81 fine on someone in Ontario working full time for minimum wage... I would argue it would have less of an impact because the sheer quantity of wealth provides so many other buffers that would not be available to someone with a low income... they'll be fine, and maybe they will be a little more careful next time). And while I'm here... contemplate the notion of environmental fines to corporations and how they work the same way (compare this
, for instance)... but that too is another story.
I said I would have one caveat, and here it is. It should not be possible to reduce a fine to zero by having no income. This obviously would still impact the extremely poor in some disproportionate way, but there does have to be limits. I do always like the "least among us" approach, and in Ontario, that "least" would be a single person (no dependents) on social assistance with an annual
income of only $7512 [holy heck, current information was hard to find on that number... and holy heck, that is a ridiculously low number]. At that income level, our $280 fine would scale to a little under $29, and that seems pretty reasonable as a minimum fine amount regardless of income (at this point, the "driving" metaphor kind of breaks down as there is no way they could afford a car, but presume it's some other offense with the same base fine amount). And before I go completely, I did want to make one little examination of the base amount of $280... Using the minimum wage example, and $81, someone would have to work for about 7.5 hours (pre-tax) to pay off that fine. That "price" would be the same for anyone (that actually worked a salaried or hourly job) because of the scaling. When setting the "base amount", the question should be "how hard will it be to pay off this fine... will it be a significant detriment when weighed against the severity of the infraction?". I still can't help but feel that $280 is a low base amount even for "distracted driving". I would be more inclined for it to cost someone earning minimum wage $280 in fines (thus making the base amount $970 or so using the proportionality I have proposed)... but that's just me, your opinion of the severity of this particular social ill is likely different from mine.
One last comment on proportionality, because this is something I have contemplated for a while as well: speeding tickets. In Ontario, it sort of works with a sliding scale, but only based on the absolute number of km/h over the limit you were going. So... the fine is the same whether you are going 120km/h in a 100km/h zone, or if you are going 60km/h in a 40km/h zone (presumably residential). Fyi, it would be a $95.00 fine. Arguably, these are different offenses. Going 50km/h or more over the speed limit puts you into the "racing" category and it actually gets serious ("immediate 7-day license suspension and 7-day vehicle impoundment; upon conviction - $2,000 to $10,000 fine, 6 demerit points, up to 6 months jail, up to 2 years license suspension for a first
conviction"). I have long thought that applying proportionality to, let's now call it, the base amount of speeding tickets makes much more sense than using an absolute speed. Back to the previous two examples, 120km/h in a 100km/h zone is going 20% over the speed limit whereas 60km/h in a 40km/h zone is going 50% over the speed limit. Again, I would argue these are two qualitatively different events. In the former, it is speeding a bit; but in the latter, it is speeding a lot. In Ontario, 0-19km/h over is $2.50 per km/h over (plus fixed fees), 20-39km/h over is $3.75 per km/h over (plus fees), 30-49km/h over is $6.00 per km/h over (plus fees), and 50km/h+ over is a different class of offense. To convert to the proportional determination using the same incremental fee schedule, you would pretty much only have to replace the "km/h over" with "% over", and you're good. In the case of our highway commuter with a heavy foot, they would be in the 20% over category and would be handed a fine of $95.00 ($20 of that is the fixed fees, the rest is the $3.75 times the number of percent over). Our suburban leadfoot, on the other hand, is 50% over the posted limit and would find their car impounded and their lives in turmoil for going 60km/h past their neighbours' driveways. And just to be clear, to get that $95.00 ticket, a speed of 48km/h would be sufficient in that 40km/h zone (20% above). Obviously, I believe that these would then also be the baseline numbers for the fines based on median income (presuming you think those are reasonable amounts... the more I think about it, the more I'm guessing the fine amounts are skewed downward to encompass the income distribution in our society and would generally go up when set against the median family income level). Thus, if your rich neighbour up the street ($300K annual household income) zipped past your house in their Kia at 55km/h in the 40km/h zone you lived in (about 38% over), the base amount of the fine
would be $283, so their fine would be about $1160. If they tore past your place in their Tercel at 70km/h in a 40km/h zone and got caught, they would lose their car, be in court, and be facing fines from $8,000 to $40,000 and possible jail time. In contrast, if they did it today and were convicted (there are lawyers that make their living getting people who can afford it off the hook for these sorts of things... although that wouldn't change with the sliding scales I'm proposing I guess), they would receive a fine of $220 and some demerit points.