Recession, Crime and Lawyers

A couple months ago on my Albany Lawyer blog I did a post about how difficult economic times are not necessarily bad for criminal defense lawyers.

In many areas of the economy a recession means a slowdown in demand. People cut back on buying presents or on taking vacations. But for defense lawyers the sad truth is that demand can grow.

First, as I mentioned in that post, desperation leads to more crime. For some it’s the paycheck to paycheck life and the challenge of paying all the bills comes to a head. This leads to irrational and dangerous decisions just to keep up – perhaps stealing from their employer or shoplifting from a store. For others the stress causes a different kind of decision, involving illegal drugs or driving home after using legal drugs like alcohol. More of these crimes means more arrests, driving up demand for defense attorneys.

The other side of this coin is the cash-strapped states, cities and towns. Scraping for more revenue wherever they can find it, it’s easy to increase fines and surcharges on “criminals.” I read an article not too long ago that found towns in Massachusetts wrote more tickets in years after the budget was voted down. I’d swear the State Police are writing more tickets recently, perhaps because of NY’s huge deficit.

In the good old days — well 5 years ago — a first-time DWI offender in NY would get a reduction to DWAI and pay a fine of $380 including surcharge. Probably a couple hundred extra on assorted other costs.

Now in many cases there’s no reduction. With the new surcharges and the DMV assessment, it’s now well over $1600 ($500 minimum fine, $400+ surcharge, and $750 to DMV). That’s four times what they would have paid just 5 years ago.

That leaves out the insurance impact. So now the economic rationale for hiring a lawyer is much more compelling.

And if all that isn’t enough, the Albany DA is talking about pursuing forfeiture of vehicles in DWI cases as an “alternative revenue stream.” Soon we will be charging our clients even more money to save their car.

While all these government efforts help make me rich, I’m opposed. For one thing, using traffic and criminal fines to raise revenue is regressive — the burden falls far more heavily on the poor. Most people agree that people with more money should pay more taxes than people with less money. In a progressive tax system, those with more pay at least as high a percentage of their income as those with less.

That’s not how it works in the traffic and criminal tax system. Fines are generally the same regardless of your income. You get tagged going 96 in a 65 and you’ll pay about $1000 (not counting insurance) whether you make $20K or $200K. That’s 5% of the poorer guy’s income and 0.5% of the rich guy’s. Then the rich guy probably hires a lawyer like me who saves him more than $500 of that.

Besides the regressive taxation problem, the real problem is that the so-called criminal justice system should not be concerned, at all, with revenue. It should be about justice. Why do so many forget that?

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