A $58,000 traffic ticket? A number of European nations don’t let the rich off easy. In the United States, by contrast, we pummel the poor for minor offenses.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs, notes the Atlantic’s Joel Pinsker, used to brazenly park in handicapped spaces and motor around without license plates. And why not? A $50 or $100 traffic fine would barely register as even a nuisance for a billionaire like Jobs.
But what if traffic fines varied by income? In Finland — and a host of other nations from Denmark to Switzerland — they actually do. “Sliding fee” fines in these nations give deep pockets reason to think twice before they speed or otherwise trample on community safety norms.
One Finnish businessman recently had to pay a 54,000-euro fine, the equivalent of over $58,000, after police caught him going 65 in a 50 zone. That speeder took home just over $7 million in income last year.
Might the time be ripe for sliding-scale fees in the United States? Judith Greene of the nonprofit Justice Strategies thinks so.
The protests that followed last year’s deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Greene notes, have revealed how routinely local courts are gouging poor people on fines for minor offenses. Instead of gouging the poor, she posits, maybe we should make like the Finns and make sure our penalties amount to penalties for everyone, even the rich.
Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, edits the inequality monthly Too Much. His latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970.