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Fines & Restitution: The Hidden Price of a Criminal Conviction

Incarceration is just one of the many choices judges may have to dispense justice; fines and restitution are monetary options beyond—or in addition to—jail time for convicted defendants.

Fines Defined

Fines are monies paid by the defendant to the prosecuting entity, the local, state, or federal government, and are a common punishment for a variety of crimes. In most parts of the country, the law specifies the maximum fine for a particular offense and the judge is free to set a specific defendant’s fine up to that maximum.

For first-time offenders of less-serious crimes, such as fish and game violations, shoplifters, traffic violations, and even minor drug possession (for example a small amount of marijuana) or driving under the influence, the offense may be punished solely by the imposition of a fine. For more serious offenses or in situations where the offender already has a criminal record, fines may be combined with other punishments, including restitution, community service, probation, and incarceration.

One Specific “Fine”: Stamp Tax

Those convicted of a drug possession charge may be required to pay a stamp tax. In a non-criminal context, this archaic tax is imposed on certain types of transactions. An actual stamp must be purchased and attached to either the item sold or to the documents associated with the sale, such as property deeds.

As for drug possession offenses, the defendant may be required to pay a stamp tax based upon the amount of the drug involved. This is frequently another “fine” associated with possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Restitution Defined

Whereas fines are paid to the prosecuting entity, restitution is the money a defendant is ordered to pay to the victim or the victim’s family. In cases, such as welfare or Medicare fraud, where the victim is society, the defendant may be ordered to pay back the state money that was fraudulently taken. When the victim is a private citizen, a defendant’s restitution—return or replacement of property, reparation for physical or mental pain and suffering, or payment for funeral costs—is often just a part of the sentence which may also include fines, community service, probation, and prison time.

For some lesser crimes, a plea bargain, or “civil compromise,” may be reached. In exchange for the dismissal of criminal charges, the defendant legally acknowledges his guilt and agrees to pay damages for any stolen or damaged property.
Beyond jail time and probation, the justice system can use fines and restitution to effectively punish defendants for their crimes.

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