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Beware The Amnesty Binge

Amnesty and forgiveness are two different things. Amnesty is indiscriminate--the canceling of debt, obligation or penalty not out of a desire for individual justice but out of a belief that there is something to be gained by simply wiping the slate clean.

Amnesty and forgiveness are two different things. Amnesty is indiscriminate--the canceling of debt, obligation or penalty not out of a desire for individual justice but out of a belief that there is something to be gained by simply wiping the slate clean.

It is a very old idea. The book of Leviticus commands that every 50 years, in the Jubilee Year, all personal debts shall be erased and every slave shall be free to go home. The moral condition of the beneficiary isn't an issue. Anybody who happens to be in the right place at the right time qualifies. "Even if he is not redeemed," the Bible says, "he and his children are to be released in the year of Jubilee."

In the three millennia since then, public authority has granted amnesties to an enormous variety of offenders--from captured revolutionaries and student protesters to illegal immigrants and violators of narcotics law. But it's doubtful the concept has ever been employed quite so freely as it is right now, by state and local governments all over the country. We are in the middle of an amnesty binge.

This year alone, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri and South Carolina have all declared forgiveness of penalties for deadbeat taxpayers willing to come forward and make some form of restitution. Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Dallas have done the same thing for parking and traffic offenses.

Every week or so, another new zone of forgiveness seems to be carved out. The village of Spring Valley, New York, recently offered amnesty to anyone who had illegally converted a single-family home into a duplex. Lakeland, Florida, offered amnesty for violations of its building code, such as bad plumbing, faulty wiring or too much junk in the front yard. Lakeland promised to waive fees for these offenses as long as the homeowner was cooperative--"even if it's just cooperation during the amnesty period," the chairman of the code Enforcement Board said.

There are many reasons for the current amnesty binge, but much of it can be explained in a very simple way: fiscal desperation. At a time of frighteningly large budget deficits, states and localities can make up some serious revenue this way. Nearly every tax amnesty in the past year has brought in more money than originally projected. Missouri planned on $20 million from its three-month amnesty program this fall, and took in twice that much, giving virtually all of it to the public schools. Kentucky hoped for $20 million and received $80 million, rebating a portion of that back to local governments in previously uncollected property tax bills. The tax amnesty in Massachusetts turned up so many repentant scofflaws that acting governor Jane Swift decided to keep alive a $9 million infant care program, scheduled for elimination because of lack of funds.

The cities that have decided to forgive traffic offenses aren't dealing in sums of that magnitude, but the money isn't trivial there, either. Detroit's Traffic Court counted up last spring and realized it was carrying $93 million in unpaid tickets and misdemeanor citations on its books. It decided to take 50 percent off every ticket for anyone who would step forward. The result--about $1 million in revenue--wasn't exactly a total solution. But the city was glad to get it. "A 50 percent reduction is pretty drastic," the chief judge admitted. "But 50 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing."

Other local governments have decided to proclaim amnesty less for financial reasons than to bring some order to their accounting processes. DeKalb County, Georgia, found itself with 3,500 unresolved traffic citations dating back more than a decade. "It's just a monumental nightmare to keep processing these," said a municipal court judge. So DeKalb canceled all penalties for a month in exchange for payment of the original fee.

Washington, D.C., with $347 million in unpaid parking fines more than five years old, didn't even do that. It simply threw the cases out. "Very few people are going to pay those fines," one member of the city council argued, and it would be a waste of resources to chase after them.

But if the wave of amnesties is mostly a matter of money, it's not entirely so. There's clearly a moral component as well. A councilman in Nashville decided last October that the time had come to reinstate the driver's licenses of local residents who had lost them through failure to pay off traffic tickets. He said most of them were poor, and were losing out on opportunities for work because they didn't have transportation. A Circuit Court judge agreed with him. "Anybody who is honestly trying to straighten their lives out should receive some help," the judge said.

There is little doubt that amnesty--and forgiveness in general--are powerful ideas. They are also weapons that need to be invoked with extreme caution, lest they become dangerous. Physically dangerous, in some cases.

Thirty-seven years ago, Charles de Gaulle decided to spring a treat on the voters of France after they reelected him. He declared an amnesty on outstanding traffic offenses. It was a wildly popular scheme--and every French president since then has repeated the gesture.

These amnesties still serve to enhance the honeymoon effect for newly chosen chief executives. The only problem is that French drivers, knowing that they will be forgiven, drive like maniacs in the months leading up to the election. This isn't just a matter of anecdote: Highway deaths in France consistently increase by significant percentages just prior to an election. In May 2002, the month before France reelected President Jacques Chirac, there were 616 fatalities, compared with 553 during the same period the year before.

French safety experts have estimated that each amnesty costs roughly 600 lives. Last year, for the first time, there was a significant public outcry against the practice, and Chirac agreed not to apply it to offenses "that could endanger lives." But he refused to end the custom altogether.

The French example, bizarre as it might sound, points up precisely what is wrong about the use of amnesty on such a large scale. It ignores the concept that economists like to call "moral hazard." When people don't expect to be held liable for their mistakes, they take chances they otherwise wouldn't take. In the 1980s, savings and loan institutions in the United States made billions of dollars' worth of foolish and ultimately uncollectible loans, knowing that the federal government had promised to hold them harmless. It's not all that different from French motorists driving 150 kilometers an hour during an election campaign.

Perhaps the most important strategic point about amnesty is that it has to be unpredictable. You can't afford to create a sense of expectation. If you do, human beings will misbehave--sometimes disastrously.

In the current American amnesty binge, not every jurisdiction has learned this. Early in 2001, Macon, Georgia, announced it would soon hold a two-month parking and traffic amnesty. Local officials began advising citizens who called about their tax bills to hold off payment until the amnesty began. The callers may have taken that advice as a more sweeping gesture of forgiveness than was intended. After two months, the program had brought in only $80,000, out of a total of $11 million in unpaid fines.

Public libraries, which went in heavily for overdue-book amnesties in the late 1990s, have learned a similar lesson. They overdid it. By running several amnesty programs within the space of a few years, some libraries received back thousands of books that had been missing from the shelves for years. But they were also encouraging bad habits. "We all soon found out," said the president of the Public Library Association, "that people were holding on to their materials and waiting for the next one." In the past couple of years, libraries have been more inclined to turn hard-core scofflaws over to collection agencies than to try to lure them back with forgiveness.

Of course, there is a way around this problem: Use amnesty as an extremely rare event, and build in some serious consequences for those who fail to take advantage of it. This past fall, the city of Chicago announced its first parking amnesty in 15 years. Anybody with tickets more than two years old and totaling less than $5,000 could come in, pay the original fine and have the penalties forgiven. At the same time, the mayor announced that when the amnesty was over, anybody with three or more unpaid tickets could expect to have his car booted, and the 100 drivers who owed the most money would have their names posted on the city's Web site. When the amnesty window finally closed on October 15, nearly 70,000 taxpayers had come in to do penance, 242,000 debts were wiped off the books and $8 million had been raised.

So there are good ways and bad ways for government to conduct an amnesty. But even the good ways ought to leave those who promote them at least a little bit uneasy. People who send in their taxes and pay off their traffic fines do it on the implicit assumption that they are to be treated in a different way from others who evade those responsibilities. Whatever legitimate purposes an amnesty may serve, it is a breach of faith with the law-abiding. It turns the most conscientious citizens into suckers, one small step at a time. If there's anything more corrosive to citizenship than the feeling that government is taking you for a sucker, I can't imagine what it would be.

I can understand why states and cities are attracted to amnesty schemes that bring in millions of dollars at a time when money is scarce. But I'm afraid they are bad investments in the long run.

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