The Constitutionality of Income-Based Fines


Federal constitutional doctrine supports implementing income-based fines as an aspect of the United States justice system.

The current financial consequences for low-income offenders often lead to cycles of debt and jail, while high-income individuals can break the law without meaningful financial consequences. Although imposing fines regardless of income allows for uniformity, the punishment is not equally felt and is less likely to deter the wealthy. Imposing income-based fines could help reduce criminal justice debt on the poor and help boost revenue by increasing the rate at which low-income offenders pay their debts. This article proposes implementing income-based fines within the United States justice system, and discusses how constitutional doctrines could shape and allow its implementation.

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Key Findings:

  • Equal Protection Clause: Although socioeconomic status is not a protected class, government policies can differentiate based on income; the Court has suggested whether fines should be tailored to income is a question for legislators and sentencing courts.
  • Due Process: The due process clause is unlikely to impose constraints on income-based fines since the Court has articulated a standard for determining whether a punitive damages award is “grossly excessive”  that substantially overlaps with the standard it has applied under the Excessive Fines Clause.
  • Right to a Jury Trial: An income-based fine regime could punish offenses with fines well into the tens-of-thousands of dollars range without triggering the jury trial right.
  • Excessive  Fines Clause: To determine whether a fine violates the excessive fine clause, the court will need to assess the gravity of an offense, the magnitude of a fine, and the proportionality of the fine.


Alec Schierenbeck
The University of Chicago Law Review