Howard Journal of Criminal Justice Volume: 43 Issue: 5 Dated: December 2004 Pages: 518-538
Drawing on research conducted for the British Home Office from 2000 to 2002 in magistrates' courts of England and Wales, this paper analyzes the circumstances of fine defaults and implications for policies that govern the imposition and administration of fines.
Fines are the most frequently used sanction of magistrates' courts, being imposed in approximately three-fourths of all cases of conviction. "Compensation orders," i.e., money payments to crime victims, and "costs orders" are other forms of financial penalty imposed by the lower courts, which are also responsible for collecting the financial penalties imposed by the Crown Court. Under the current system of "day fines," financial penalties are first set in terms of a number of days according to offense severity; this is subsequently multiplied by an amount that is based on an assessment of the offender's ability to pay. The offender has the option to pay in a lump sum, in installments, or in community work for the assigned number of days. Prison is the sanction for noncompliance, with the number of days in prison linked to the level of the outstanding fine. The analysis found that an offender's default on a fine is not always a willful failure to comply with the court's sentence, which would appropriately be met with a punitive response from the court. In some cases, fine defaults are related to miscalculations by the court regarding the offender's ability to pay or stem from changing financial circumstances of the offender over which he/she has no control. In cases of fine defaults, the court should investigate the causes of each default and provide supportive services that will assist the offender in dealing with various problems related to the default. Further, adjustments in the amount of the fine may be required based on information that was faulty or incomplete at the time the fine was set. Essential to accurate and effective risk assessment are good information systems and insightful analyses by practitioners in interpreting offender financial situations. 23 references