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Finland’s progressive fines dent wallets big and small

HELSINKI — Getting a speeding ticket is not a feel-good moment for anyone. But consider Reima Kuisla, a Finnish businessman.

He was recently fined $58,000 for traveling a modest, if illegal, 64 miles per hour in a 50-mile-per-hour zone. And no, the amount of the fine did not turn out to be a typo or a mistake of any kind.

Kuisla is a millionaire, and in Finland the fines for more serious speeding infractions are calculated according to income. The thinking here is that if it stings for the little guy, it should sting for the big guy, too.

The ticket had its desired effect. Kuisla, 61, took to Facebook last month with 12 furious posts in which he included a picture of his speeding ticket and a picture of what that money could buy if it were not going to the state coffers — a new Mercedes.

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He said he was seriously considering leaving Finland altogether, a position to which he held firm when reached by phone at a bar where he was watching horse races.

“The way things are done here makes no sense,” Kuisla sputtered, saying he would not be giving interviews. Before hanging up, he added: “For what and for whom does this society exist? It is hard to say.”

The Nordic countries have long had a strong egalitarian streak, embracing progressive taxation and high levels of social spending. Perhaps less well known is that they also practice progressive punishment, when it comes to certain fines. A rich person, many citizens here believe, should pay more for the same offense if justice is to be served. The question is: How much more?

On his Facebook page, quite a few of Kuisla’s friends offered their sympathy. But that did not seem to be the drift of public opinion. Elsewhere, it was easier to find Finns who were shrugging about his predicament.

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At the University of Helsinki, Jussi Lahti, 35, a graduate student in geography, said he could understand that Kuisla was upset, but he considered the principle of an equal percentage fair. And, he added, Kuisla “had a choice when he decided to speed.”

The size of Kuisla’s ticket nonetheless drew considerable attention here, as television shows and newspapers debated the merits of Finland’s system, which uses a complex formula based on income to calculate an individual’s fines.

Some wondered whether the government should stop imposing such fines for infractions at relatively low speeds. Some suggested that a fine so big was really a form of taxation.

But the idea that the rich should pay heavier fines did not seem to be much in question.

“It is an old system,” said Pasi Kemppainen, chief superintendent at the National Police Board. “It may lead to high fines, but only for people who can afford it.”

In fact, the Finnish “day fine” system, also in use in some other Scandinavian countries, dates to the 1920s, when fines based on income were instituted for all manner of lesser crimes, such as petty theft and assault, and helped greatly reduce the prison population.

The fines are calculated based on half an offender’s daily net income with some consideration for the number of children under his or her roof and a deduction deemed to be enough to cover basic living expenses, currently about $277. Then, that figure is multiplied by the number of days of income the offender should lose, according to the severity of the offense.

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Kuisla, 61, a betting man who parlayed his winnings into a real estate empire, was clocked speeding near the Seinajoki airport. Given the speed he was going, Kuisla was assessed eight days. His fine was then calculated from his 2013 income, more than $7 million.

The ticket has tapped into a broader debate about the coherence of the Finnish justice system. Kuisla’s speeding infraction is classified as a crime here, which could seem severe when other parts of the system are relatively lenient.

For instance, people convicted of murder could receive as little as nine years and could be released in 4½ years, said Kimmo Kiiski, a senior transport adviser with the Ministry of Transport and Communications.