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Leniency on criminal fines subverts crime reduction

Louisiana’s lawmakers can’t let money concerns overrule good sense when it comes to criminal justice reform, thus requiring compromise within bills such as state Rep. Tanner Magee’s HB 249.

As state policy-makers have made a concerted effort to reform the system that incarcerates more people per capita than any country in the world or than any state in the country, many have sold the effort as a means to save money. They have argued that smarter allocation of resources could result without impairing effectiveness of correctional policy.

But the package of bills to reflect changes to transform the system has faced scrutiny for introducing too much laxity in sentencing and carrying that out. Supporters have had to tone down measures that unwisely would have eroded the deterrent effects concerning the most serious crimes, which also served to erode savings promised.

However, more work remains with Magee’s bill. It addresses fines as part of a sentence and restitution to pay if ordered. The bill would allow rescheduling of payments, reduction of penalties, or even waiver of these, if a judge determines the burden too great for an offender with dependents. If not making enough payment on time prior to the scheduled end of parole, the bill disallows the current ability under law of judges extending prison stays or parole, revoking a driver’s license, or charging interest until the convict pays the debt.

Further, it places a cap on the maximum allowable monthly payment, at the equivalent of eight hours of work. Also, substance abuse treatment, job training, education or 15 hours of community service can substitute for paying. Those who made consistent monthly payments for 12 months or half of their parole and probation period could have the rest of their financial obligation waived.

Reasonably enough, Magee and bill supporters argue that placing financial burdens on offenders can sap them of their ability to get ahead legally in the world, if not outright discourage them from doing so. In addition, particularly by extending supervision, this costs the state to continue it. Yet at the same time these kinds of changes dilute the deterrent effect that the penalties create to discourage potential crime, increasing costs to society.

By taking away the power to extend imprisonment or parole until a convict reaches a satisfactory level of payment, potential offenders out in the community knowing this see one less cost they could face in the risk/return ratio they calculate about their future actions. The power to waive sends an even stronger signal that crime increasingly likely can pay.

The bill’s bludgeoning approach also fails to distinguish between different levels of morality. A monetary penalty to the state has the power to dissuade, but when in the form of restitution, it also carries restorative aspects to victims. If a sentence includes restitution, the law never should circumscribe that, even if it takes the most lenient terms over an extended period to make victims whole.

Thus, for the bill not to cross the line into enabling crime, it must continue to allow the use of prison or probation as a means to collect penalties. If problems arise from onerous payoff provisions, that’s not a fault of the concept but of bad judgment by authorities. Surely, they can calculate repayment plans that foster responsibility in payers that simultaneously do not put them in almost no-win financial situations.

In the case of restitution, that is imperative. Perhaps in these instances the bill’s alternatives can come in to play that allows deferral of payments, but these should not substitute for actual payment. Along with that, waivers should not be permitted; again, surely authorities can work out plans where even small amounts on a regular basis are possible, even if these serve mostly as symbolic reminders to the miscreant.

As written, the bill might save money (although if fine collection decreases enough as a result, it might not) and could encourage some already convicted to go straight, but does not provide enough discouragement to keep some others on the straight and narrow path in the future, which also can increase future monetary and other costs to society. Modifications as noted to it that the House of Representatives might take up later this week could remedy these shortcomings.

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