When fines don’t do the job, let the punishment fit the crime
Written by Michael Lewis on October 23, 2013
Lyrics from “A More Humane Mikado” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Mikado” suggest a serious solution to last week’s Miami Today report of a zoning quandary.
Miami-Dade County has for two years offered amnesty in a single-family-home cluster in the northwest quadrant plagued by code violations. Those who now comply with code face no fines for past violations. Hundreds of cases were cleaned up.
That’s a victory – except that many more hundreds of violations linger, and the official in charge sees amnesty from fines as absolutely no incentive to end those abuses.
It seems owners illegally converted many single-family homes to multifamily, which provide them far larger rental income than county penalties offset. Even if they pay fines, the violators come out far ahead by not returning the buildings to legal single-family homes.
“So some of them will be corrected; a lot of them are not going to be corrected,” said Charles Danger of the Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources. “We’re going to be doing enforcement for quite a time from now on.”
The county’s penalties are $500. A $10,000 lien “that you can pay after you’re dead, basically,” can be placed on a violating structure, Mr. Danger said. Meanwhile, he said, a homeowner can over time earn $700,000 or $800,000 in rent from the multifamily home.
In this sense, crime does pay.
And so the Mikado’s song: “My object all sublime I shall achieve in time, to let the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the crime.”
As the county weighs extending amnesty from penalties into a third year for those who fess up and stop breaking county code by cramming multiple families into the area’s homes, it should include punitive action against those who keep breaking the law.
Yes, but what will fit the crime?
As Mr. Danger explains, it makes economic sense to pay fines or to live with a lien forever and keep raking in more and more illicit rent.
So the penalties that officials have available as weapons do little better than moral suasion. They don’t fit the crime.
Is Mikado-like retribution called for – maybe not a Biblical eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, but a measure whereby the county, not the owner, gets the rent when a structure intentionally is kept out of compliance?
Is some deterrent needed in law to prevent an owner from knowingly stepping well over the line for years for pure economic gain?
Clearly, as Mr. Danger noted to a county committee, something is amiss when amnesty from penalties is less attractive than continuing to pile up violations and accepting fines as part of the cost of doing business – in this case, of being a bigger landlord.
Criminal operations that fit under the loose heading of vice – gambling, prostitution, illegal liquor sales during prohibition years – have long known that part of the cost of doing illegal business was to either pay off law enforcers or pay fines far smaller than the illegal income. Minor penalties were all part of a day’s work.
Likewise, if today’s civil penalties are less weighty than incentives to violate the law, the punishment clearly doesn’t fit the crime.
In such cases, the big deterrent to violations is good will – nice, but it doesn’t stop even jaywalking or overtime parking, for which the pain of complying is minimal.
In the case of the illegal multifamily homes, the rental income incentive to violate code far outweighs the amnesty incentive to do the right thing.
How much more pressure can the county apply?
A more telling question is: How much more pressure is it willing to apply? Landlords who violate code are voters, perhaps campaign donors. Do commissioners have the will to make them comply by using something stronger than amnesty and wrist slaps?
The Mikado had his ideas of justice: “All prosy dull society sinners, who chatter and bleat and bore, are sent to hear sermons from mystical Germans who preach from ten till four.”
Sermons aren’t the best solution. Commissioners would do well to ponder levying their own more painful penalties to bring a willful flock of code violators for profit into line.