Every day in the United States, people accused of crimes face fines so exorbitant they cannot realistically be expected to pay, yet they are expected to and that helps fuel the debate about what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Shirley Goldwire is a 68 year-old Philadelphia woman charged with two counts of stealing 14 years of government benefits intended for her now-deceased husband. If convicted, Goldwire may have to re-pay the government $264,021, pay a $500,000 fine, and a $200 special assessment. She could also face a maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison and three-year period of supervised release. 

Romeo Callueng, 45, and his wife, Susan, 43, of Woodlyn, last week pleaded guilty to tax evasion and fraud in connection to a health care benefit program. Each may have to repay the IRS a possible fine of up to $1.25 million, and a $500 special assessment. They could also face jail time anywhere from 18 months to 25 years.

These two cases are routine representative of many others in which defendants are expected to pay high fines even though they don’t have the funds. Why, then, do such fines exist? How are the figures arrived at? And what happens when people cannot pay?

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