The commission of a crime often causes the victims substantial, or even severe, financial loss. In the case of theft, the resulting hardship is usually a monetary loss, compensation for which can repair the damage, unless the item stolen has sentimental or other unique characteristics. Other crimes, however, result principally in damage that cannot be measured in dollars, as in the case of rape, or assault and battery. There may also be substantial monetary loss stemming from such offenses, ranging from medical and psychiatric expenses to loss of wages from not being able to work for awhile thereafter.
Economic costs can be recovered in a civil trial, wherein the victim seeks remuneration from the perpetrator. But sometimes victims prefer not to bring such a case, partly because of the unwillingness to re-live the facts and circumstances of the event, and partly because the criminals often have no assets from which to recover the assessed monetary damages. The costs of bringing the suit can exceed the damages that are being sought. Victims often remain uncompensated.
Thus, there is often a need for a mechanism built into the criminal system to recover some of these costs for victims as easily, expeditiously, and cost effectively as possible.
But these are not the only monetary costs of crime. In addition to the costs to the victim are the costs to society. First, following the commission of a crime, police officers and investigators are involved. Their salaries, expenses, and support services all cost money. Depending on the type of crime, there can be involvement from Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
Then, there are the costs of incarceration prior to trial. The per-day costs of keeping an individual in jail or prison vary among states, but in each they are substantial. As is evident from the debates over prison construction and ballot measures to authorize the issuance of bonds for building new jail and prison facilities, there are long-term costs of incarceration, as well as up-front costs.
The cost of operating the judicial system is also escalating, as each crime results in paperwork, administrative time and resources, and courtroom time. These costs are even higher in states with "three strikes" laws, as the accused is more likely to refuse a plea bargain, and more likely to appeal a conviction, because of the cumulative consequences of multiple convictions. Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, bailiffs, and other staff all need to be paid, as well. Even jury members are usually paid and some of their expenses are defrayed.
Following a conviction, depending on the sentence, there are likely to be additional costs of incarceration, ranging from those of a short period in a juvenile detention facility to a life spent in a maximum-security prison. Following parole, there are additional expenses, including the salaries of parole officers, regular drug and alcohol tests, home visits, and general administration.
All of these costs are borne by the taxpayers as a whole, and come at the expense of using tax revenues for more productive purposes. These costs must be viewed in the context of a system in which families must pay "user fees" to enter national parks, and business owners must pay a business license fee akin to a downpayment on the costs of the government regulating them. It simply makes no sense that criminals have an unlimited credit line to run up law enforcement and judicial system costs without paying back a cent.
Ideas / Solutions
States and the Federal government should legislatively establish Crime Repayment Funds. It would serve as both a cost recovery mechanism and a deterrent to the commission of crimes. The Funds would receive payments from convicted criminals in amounts assessed by the judge at the time of sentencing to reflect, initially, the costs (or a portion of the costs) attributable to the government's cost of investigating and prosecuting the crime, as well as pre-conviction incarceration. Depending on the sentence, there could also be an assessment of how much money would be owed for anticipated subsequent incarceration, to accrue over time, not unlike a monthly room-and-board fee.
The judge should also have discretion to order payment to the victim for some of their expenses, where such amounts are easily ascertainable. For example, in the case of a conviction for car theft, where the criminal wrecked the car after stealing it, the judge could direct the criminal to pay the replacement cost of a comparable car.
Convicted criminals who are financially unable to pay could work out a settlement with the court to pay some amount of money that would be painful yet not wipe out everything they have. The payment certainly should not be so steep as to impair a basic living standard for any family members who are financially dependent upon the criminal's assets. There could also be an arrangement to attach the small amount of wages earned for work in prison, as well as some reasonable percentage of the wages earned after the individual is released from prison. It would, once again, be necessary to set the amount or percentage at such a level that will not leave the individual in such economic straits that they would perpetrate additional crimes, such as theft or distribution of controlled substances, to pay off the debt of their earlier crime. Even in situations where the criminal has virtually no assets, the judge should still have the authority make that determination and at least fashion a symbolic attachment of assets.
In addition to setting an amount that would reimburse government for its expenses, judges should have discretion, in the case of violent or other especially flagrant crimes, to require that punitive damages be paid, as well. This could apply in the case of a conviction for multiple offenses, repeat offenders, and flagrant economic crimes.
There is no reason that a wealthy individual convicted on major bribery, embezzlement, or theft by fraud charges should be able to return to their lifestyle of wealth after a brief stint in a minimum security facility, particularly after creating economic hardship for many others. The recent Enron and MCI-Worldcom convictions are easy examples. In these cases, justice must recognize that, for the perpetrator of a "money crime", punishment is best expressed in terms of money. In these cases, leniency should not be an issue of whether or not to set a steep fine or penalty, but rather whether or not the court will accept cash, check, or charge card.
Although it might seem unusual to extract steep punitive damages in a criminal trial, that money could be placed in sub-accounts of the Funds that would be held for victims of that particular crime should they get a judgment entitling them to it. If no victim brings a civil suit awarding them punitive damages before the statute of limitations runs out (therefore barring any future lawsuits stemming from those events), then the punitive damages money would be shifted into the Fund itself. This way, even if the victim herself does not seek economic punishment on the criminal, such punishment would still be imposed, to the benefit of the judicial and law enforcement systems.
The money in the Funds could be used for a number of related purposes. First and foremost, it should be applied to crime prevention efforts, through law enforcement programs, community initiatives, and other creative solutions tailored to deter or redirect criminal behavior. Secondly, it should be spent on victims assistance programs, aimed toward helping victims return their lives to normal, and reimbursing financial expenses incurred through counseling, support services, and other efforts to cope with the victimization. Thirdly, the Funds could be used for investment in technologies and systems that will aid in the investigation and prosecution of crimes, and to offset costs in especially expensive cases.
The assessment of monetary penalties and punitive damages in a criminal trial would serve the interests of taxpayers, victims, and deterrence of future crimes. It would be a win-win situation, defraying the government's costs, assisting victims in being promptly paid back for some of the costs they incurred from the crime, and advancing the principles of justice and fairness. The only losers would be, appropriately, those who commit crimes, and even then, only to a reasonable, rational, justifiable extent.