Your Fine: $101 Million. Payable: Forever

Steven Emory Butcher, the man who while burning trash, set off the longest-burning wildfire in recorded California history, was sentenced Monday to 45 months in Federal prison and fined $101 million.

Butcher is not just homeless but mentally ill. It's easy to mock the absurdity of the fine,  but in a typically excellent Slate piece (here), Christopher Beam explains the logic.

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.

It's possible to sympathize with a mentally ill man and yet still want to see him punished for the Day Fire, which burned for weeks on its way from I-5 to Ojai, consuming vast expanses of forest and chaparral on its way. (Not to mention the chaos and desperation of evacuations for yours truly and his family.) It's a shame for all of us, but I can't feel too sorry for Butcher, especially since he was fined for setting two fires in the forest within three years.

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.

Los Padres will not soon forget the Day Fire. It probably wishes it could forget Steven Emory Butcher. [pic from Fire Lookout via Flickr]


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