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There is no obvious difference between a fine and a tax levied on criminals. Either way, the criminal has to pay money, and the money ends up somewhere in government coffers.

In theory, we'd like to use fines as much as possible for deterrence, because a fine transfers value whereas incarceration destroys it (Incarceration has positive side-effects such as keeping potentially dangerous folks under watch and isolated from the rest of us, but these do not offset the drawbacks). Unfortunately, an overreliance on "efficient" fines can cause perverse incentives in the justice system: given the existing asymmetries in information and power relationships, it is unwise to make it in the government's (or anyone else's) interest to convict alleged criminals regardless of their guilt. See e.g. David Friedman, Law's Order (ch. 15: Crime).

Anon: "it is unwise to make it in the government's (or anyone else's) interest to convict alleged criminals regardless of their guilt"

Thank you for making this point. UK Conservative Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is planning to cut Britain's prison population - because prison is pointless by allowing "large sentence discounts in return for early guilty pleas and diverting the mentally ill away from jail." The latter is a laudable goal, the former is exactly the kind of thing that you're concerned about.

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