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Fines will hurt the poor

REV. DAVID E. HALL, Salisbury, United Kingdom

Fines will hurt the poor

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Permit me to offer an opinion on one aspect of the recent legislation dealing with traffic offences. I particularly refer to the size of penalties for drivers guilty of using mobile phones while driving.

I read last week of the first case brought before the courts. In that instance, the offender was fined $1 000 forthwith for using his cellphone while driving. The fine was paid and a demand placed on him for an additional $400 for refusing to give the reporting officer his name. Should he fail to pay, he will spend 40 days in jail.

Let me be clear at the outset: I do not support breaking of the law or disrespecting an officer in the execution of his duty. Furthermore, I fully accept that according to the experts, monetary sanctions are intended to provide a deterrent punishment to reduce lawbreaking, to fund the operation and administration of courts and criminal justice systems, and because paying a monetary sanction for a low-level violation is an annoyance, it is likely that persons may be dissuaded from committing such or related offences.

In contemplating the full implications of this legislation, however, I thought of three things:

1. The burdens these hefty fines will inadvertently place upon the entire poor families and not just the offenders, since both the loss of money in paying fines or imprisonment (resulting in loss of employment) for non-payment are equally devastating.

2. As happens in other jurisdictions, accused persons are motivated to offer bribes to reporting officers so as to avoid the full fine and the demerit marks which may accompany a court process.

3. The likelihood that those found guilty and fined will in turn seek “creative ways” to replenish fines paid in court.

There may well be other areas of concern, but I just want to highlight these three. However, due to space I will deal specifically with just one – fines and poor people.

In contemplating and researching this matter, I realised that some of my concerns were reflected in a reference made in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia as it relates to fines and the poor. The writer notes that fines most often affect the poor who are disproportionately likely to be subject to criminal justice system involvement and monetary sanctions. When this happens, fines, no matter how seemingly insignificant, become a vehicle for expanded social inequality.

The fact is that the average person does not have access to money to pay into the system at the rate that is likely, given the nature and scope of the legislation. The article notes: “Despite the routine justification of monetary sanctions as less severe penalties, if imposed without restriction on the poor, they are likely to magnify the inequality, producing effects of criminal justice system involvement.”

In addressing this potential absurdity as a result of this new laws, coupled with my own thoughts and those drawn from discussions in the United Kingdom on sanctions related to other areas, I propose the following for consideration:

• A reduction of the maximum fines and terms of imprisonment as set out in the legislation;

• Legal safeguards to ensure that vulnerable persons who are most at risk of sanctions are properly protected, especially those with some level of learning disability; and

• The adding of alternative sanctions involving carrying out unpaid work, such as cleaning, for those guilty of traffic offences.

– REV. DAVID E. HALL, Salisbury, United Kingdom