Is a homeless felon really expected to pay $101 million?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 18 2008 5:50 PM

The Millionaire Arsonist

Is a homeless felon really expected to pay $101 million?

A homeless man. Click image to expand.
A homeless man

A homeless man in California was sentenced Monday to four years in prison and ordered to pay $101 million for setting fires that burned down 160,000 acres of national forest. How's a guy who sleeps in a tent supposed to pay $101 million?

He isn't. Instead, he's expected to pay a tiny bit every month until he dies. The man, Steven Emory Butcher, currently receives $1,000 a month in Supplemental Security Income, which is basically welfare for the elderly, disabled, or blind. The federal court ordered that Butcher would pay $25 to Los Padres National Forest four times a year while in prison, and then $50 a month once he's released. No one expects him to deliver the entire $101 million—even a spokesman for the prosecutor acknowledged that the odds of Butcher paying it off were "extremely slim"—but they do expect him to pay what he can. If Butcher gets a job when he gets out of prison, the probation officer can modify the amount of monthly payments—the criminal equivalent of refinancing your mortgage.

Advertisement

So why fine him so much? It's the law. A federal judge is required by statute to make a defendant pay restitution when there's property damage incurred, even if he doesn't have the money. The amount of the restitution depends not on how much the criminal can afford to pay, but how much property the victim lost, as determined by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. For example, the 2006 fire set by Butcher cost Los Padres National Forest more than $59 million in damages, plus fire suppression costs, according to an assessment by the U.S. Forest Service. Ultimately, the court settled on a $101 million price tag. Monetary loss can also be a factor in calculations of jail time—a practice that has proven controversial over the years. Loss-based sentencing is one reason Jeffrey Skilling and others convicted in financial fraud cases were sentenced to decades in prison.

There's a difference, though, between restitution fees and federal fines. Restitution goes to the victim of a crime—in this case, Los Padres National Forest. A fine goes to the state. If Butcher had deeper pockets, he might be ordered to pay the state up to $250,000 in fines as well. But the federal sentencing guidelines say that an individual defendant is off the hook if he "establishes that he is unable to pay and is not likely to become able to pay any fine."

Some foreign governments adjust punishments according to what criminals can pay. European countries including Finland and Germany have a system of "day-fines," in which judges take your income into account when assigning penalties. Instead of a flat rate, you're fined a certain portion of your daily disposable income. (In Finland it's usually about half, with a minimum fine of 6 euros.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, Robert Weisberg of Stanford University, and attorney Mark Windsor.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.