Increas­ingly, states are turn­ing to so-called “user fees” and surcharges to under­write crim­inal justice costs and close budget gaps. In this report, we focus on Flor­ida, a state that relies so heav­ily on fees to fund its courts that observ­ers have coined a term for it – “cash register justice.” Since 1996, Flor­ida added more than 20 new categor­ies of finan­cial oblig­a­tions for crim­inal defend­ants and, at the same time, elim­in­ated most exemp­tions for those who cannot pay. The fee increases have not been accom­pan­ied by any evid­ent consid­er­a­tion of their hidden costs: the cumu­lat­ive impacts on those required to pay, the ways in which the debt can lead to new offenses, and the costs to counties, clerks and courts of collec­tion mech­an­isms that fail to exempt those unable to pay.

This report exam­ines the impact of the Flor­ida Legis­lature’s decision to levy more user fees on persons ac­cused and convicted of crimes, without provid­ing exemp­tions for the indi­gent. Its conclu­sions are troub­ling. Flor­ida relies heav­ily on fees to under­write its crim­inal justice system and, at times, uses monies gener­ated by fees to subsid­ize general revenue. In many cases, the debts are uncol­lect­ible; perform­ance stand­ards for court clerks, for example, expect that only 9 percent of fees levied in felony cases will be collec­ted. Yet, ag­gress­ive collec­tion prac­tices result in a range of collat­eral consequences. Missed payments produce more fees. Unpaid costs prompt the suspen­sion of driv­ing priv­ileges (and, relatedly, the abil­ity to get to work).

Moreover, collec­tion prac­tices are not uniform across the state. Court clerks have most of the respons­ib­il­ity. In some judi­cial circuits, the courts them­selves take a more active role. At their worst, collec­tion prac­tices can lead to a new vari­ation of “debt­ors’ prison” when indi­vidu­als are arres­ted and incar­cer­ated for fail­ing to appear in court to explain missed payments.

As most pris­ons and jails are at capa­city, and unem­ploy­ment and economic hard­ship are wide­spread, it is time to consider whether heap­ing more debt on those unable to afford it is a sens­ible approach to finan­cing essen­tial state func­tions.

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Brennan Center for Justice



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