It is an indisputable axiom in constitutional democracy that everybody is equal before the law. This idea is as strong in Korea as it is in any other society, with many Korean citizens concerned about whether the law is actually applied to the rich and the poor in an equal manner.
Under the law here, the same fine is imposed on people who commit the same minor offense, regardless of the difference between their incomes or assets. At first glance, this system seems fair and in accordance with the principle of equality.
But a local human rights group has recently staged a campaign to change that practice, arguing that it is disproportionate and unfair, considering the purpose of pecuniary punishments.
A fine serves as a penalty for an offense that is not serious enough to warrant a jail term. For those who cannot afford to pay the fine, however, this differentiation in punishment has no effective meaning.
A person sentenced to a pecuniary penalty is obliged to pay the fine in full within 30 days. Otherwise, he or she must spend a certain period of time in prison.
According to government figures, about 40,000 Koreans were jailed annually from 2008-12 for failing to pay fines. The rights group has named their campaign “43,199,” which refers to the number of people detained for this reason in 2009. More than 300,000 people are awaiting prison across the country because they failed to pay fines of less than 3 million won ($2,800). Some offenders may have intentionally chosen to be jailed, but it is fair to assume that they would make up just a fraction of the total number.
The rights group has called for differentiated fines in proportion to offenders’ wealth, saying the method is fairer than simply applying the principle of numerical equality. Their idea is that the daily fines should vary for individuals who fall into different income groups and that the number of days they have to pay should be determined by the seriousness of the offense.
It seems that this proposal deserves sincere deliberation. It may not actually be equal before the law to give the rich and poor the same fines, when the result is that poor offenders face jail time while the rich feel no burden and thus little sense of guilt.
While some lawmakers are in favor of introducing the new system, the Korean Bar Association has objected to it, citing the difficulty of objectively evaluating individual financial conditions to serve as grounds for levying fines. The lawyers’ logic is not very persuasive, considering that people make different contributions to the national health insurance fund depending on their earnings. It should be noted that differentiated fines are imposed in many advanced countries, including Germany and France.
In addition, the procedure for paying fines needs to be improved by extending the grace period and permitting payment in installments.
To maintain social order, minor offenses as well as grave crimes should be dealt with sternly. This does not mean, however, that it is unnecessary to work out measures to make it easier and less burdensome for low-income offenders to pay fines. What must not be done is to frequently grant unprincipled pardons to people convicted of violating basic rules that keep everyday life safe and stable.