Lower socioeconomic classes disproportionately hurt by financial penalties

Not too long ago, I went to Cleveland for an event and upon arriving back at my car at the end of the night, I discovered something no one wants to find: a parking ticket tucked under my windshield wiper.

An immediate combination of anger, frustration and confusion flooded over me. I parked by a meter, but I arrived after 6 p.m. and was therefore not required to pay for parking according to nearby signs. Instead, I was charged for parking within 10 feet of a fire hydrant. Fair enough. It was an honest mistake. Nonetheless, I owed the City of Cleveland $50 for my oversight.

This unexpected cost was imposed days before winter break and was supposed to help pay for gas to get home and Christmas gifts for my siblings, and it certainly ate into the limited amount I saved to tide me over for the month I would not be working. For the entire duration of the drive back from Cleveland, I was burdened by anger and stress — but perhaps most notably, I fumed over the fact that the value of $50 differs from person to person and I felt I was receiving the short end of the stick. If I was wealthier or wasn’t trying to put myself through school, this would simply be the cost to park there. But because of my circumstances, I felt extorted and vulnerable.

Acknowledging my own privilege, this fine could have burdened another person harder than myself, such as a single mother feeding her family. But despite my attempts to put matters into perspective, my thoughts always circled back to inequity and the fact that these sorts of fines are hardly inconveniences in the same regard for wealthier people.

Fines are fairly ubiquitous in many facets of society and almost always point to inequitable consequences. On a much larger scale than mere parking tickets, massive corporations find it to be more cost-effective to disregard inconvenient regulations and simply pay fines as a cost to do business.

BP, the oil company responsible for the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, paid over $18 billion in legal settlements and for cleanup because it was more profitable than not engaging in the practices that led to the spill in the first place.

Another corporation, Purdue Pharma, developed OxyContin and underplayed the risk of addiction associated with the drug and its effectiveness, essentially kickstarting America’s opioid epidemic. The company similarly paid out hundreds of millions of dollars after the damage was done because it was more profitable than being honest with OxyContin’s limitations or not selling the drug.

These corporations that have set aside massive sums of money for legal fees when they need to wipe their slate clean have seen few other consequences. In this respect, fines do what they were intended to do. The corporations swallowed their multibillion dollar pride and paid out, just as I had to do with my measly $50. But this does not make it a fair practice. It is worth considering an alternative to distributing fines.

What if instead of constant figures, fines were based on income percentages? Wealth allows individuals bigger houses, more vacation time, buying power and influence, but as it stands today, wealth also allows a lawlessness of sorts.

Wealthy people and corporations have the power to decide if a law is worth following with a simple cost-benefit analysis that cannot be afforded to others. That being said, it makes sense that money should not allow someone to escape the relative consequences of the law and should pay a flat percentage based on their income or net worth in relation to the severity of the infraction.

What if BP were required to pay half of its net worth — or more due to the severity of the incident —  instead of cleanup, legal fees, and a half-hearted apology? Would we still have experienced the ecological terror that we did? Or maybe Purdue could have been fined based on the millions of people it affected, or some other quantifiable terms in relation to the opioid epidemic rather than lump sums of millions of dollars to cities that sued for it. Or what if, at some point, we as a collective society said, “we don’t want your money” and put those responsible for these disasters in jail or simply revoked the rights to the corporations?

What if someone with 20 times the wealth as myself paid $500 for the same parking ticket I recieved? I certainly do not condone capitalizing from honest mistakes with financial punishment, but while it is being done, shouldn’t everyone experience the same inconvenience? As of right now, fines are threats that are used to control the ever-increasing working class and simultaneously equate to slaps on the wrists for wealthier people. It’s expensive to not have money.