Pubdate: Thu, 01 Dec 2005
Source: Daily Iowan, The (IA Edu)
Copyright: 2005 The Daily Iowan


Can money really pay for everything? This certainly appears to be the 
case in Florida, where two men who were convicted of felonies for 
causing the deaths of their passengers in alcohol-related car crashes 
were given reduced sentences last week because they offered to pay 
money to the victims' families.

Under Florida state law, if the victim's family agrees with the 
lesser term in exchange for such restitution, judges are free to 
deviate from recommended punishment guidelines, and they typically 
do. One of the offenders sentenced last week agreed to pay $50,000; 
he will serve 81UKP2 years in prison. The other promised $900 per 
month over 15 years in addition to two years in prison, the St. 
Petersburg Times reported Nov. 26.

This system works quite well for those able to afford substantial 
compensation, but what about other defendants who cannot afford 
restitution? It would seem that their poverty leaves them simply out of luck.

In other, similar Florida cases involving traffic deaths, defendants 
who are unable to afford restitution to the victims' families, or in 
cases where the families simply refuse, can face decades in prison - 
including defendants without prior criminal records. As for the men 
given lighter prison terms, each have prior records, including theft 
and numerous traffic violations.

While the wishes of the victims' families should be taken into 
account and the proper reparations made, there are other facts to 
consider. Not only must offenders pay their debt to their victims, 
they must also do so to society. Just because people have the money 
to pay off the family doesn't mean they should be excused from 
imprisonment. Any restitution should be combined with a jail sentence 
appropriate to the crime, and in cases in which the crime results in 
death, a reduced sentence should not even be an option.

Restitution should not ignore defendants' ability to pay, especially 
if the seriousness of the sentence is at issue. A system used by the 
Iowa Department of Corrections, where a percentage of inmates' 
earnings are diverted to victims' aid, is a far better approach to 
the matter. The financial suffering of victims should not be ignored, 
but to further punish those unable to pay, while wealthy criminals 
essentially buy lighter sentences, is wrong. This essentially reduces 
our legal system to the pardon days of the past, when buying 
forgiveness was the norm.

This debate brings to light how social factors - ethnicity, class, 
wealth, status - factor into sentencing decisions and whether they 
should or not. In the eyes of the law, all citizens are equal, but 
this becomes impossible when a person's financial status is a factor.

If an offender receives a lighter sentence after offering to pay a 
victim's family, the offender is not realizing the full consequences 
of her or his actions. In turn, the most important purpose of the law 
- - deterring future crimes - may be damaged, and the offender left 
more likely to repeat the offense: If money solved the problem 
before, why not rely on it again?

The different facts and different circumstances of each case must 
always be taken into account when sentences are handed out, but the 
offender's wealth should never be the deciding factor.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman