Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Can't Pay Fines in Ireland? Don't Worry, There's No Space in Jail

Law abiding citizens ought to be outraged by reports about a significant number of offenders refusing to pay fines and facing no adverse consequences for such disregard for their legal obligations. What's worse, to escape scrutiny, the system is resorting to skullduggery to conceal the true numbers of those turned away from jail for not paying their fines by not characterising them as being on "temporary release". These individuals are being equated - wrongly - with those who have served their jail terms.

As the Irish Times reports, "a “front-door mechanism” was created last year. The system ensures that most fine defaulters arriving at the gates of a jail are turned away because there is no room for them inside.
Their fines are expunged on the spot because they are technically regarded as having served a short prison term in lieu of their fine."

Why should people pay fines if there are no consequences for not paying them? To be sure, many will pay out of a sense of legal or moral obligation. But many pay fines only because of fear of other secondary sanctions for refusal to pay. If these sanctions fail to bite, such individuals will ignore the primary sanction. To add insult to injury, reports indicate that these fines are expunged. This makes no sense. Why not retain them on the records as unpaid debts that could be garnished from wages etc when possible?

The reason provided for turning defaulters away from jail - lack of space - is not a justification for absolving them of all punishment. Why not impose community service orders if there is no space in jail? Or other sanctions like taking away driving licences (if the fines were for automobile related offences)? There are plenty of punishment avenues other than incarceration and the state ought to explore them in these instances.

Turning a blind eye to those who refuse to honour their legal obligations only sends the wrong signal to society and ultimately undermines respect for the rule of law. One can only expect more disregard for legal rules if this policy continues.