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Cash Register Justice

Florida’s practice of financing its criminal justice system with fees from the indigent creates a vicious cycle of debt for ex-offenders that threatens their successful re-entry into society, according to a new Brennan Center report released today.

March 23, 2010

New report shows how Flor­id­a’s increas­ing reli­ance on user fees under­cuts re-entry

For imme­di­ate release, March 23, 2010

Contact: Susan Lehman, 212–998–6318 or Jean­ine Plant-Chirlin, 646–265–7721

TALL­A­HASSEE – Flor­id­a’s prac­tice of finan­cing its crim­inal justice system with fees from the indi­gent creates a vicious cycle of debt for ex-offend­ers that threatens their success­ful re-entry into soci­ety, accord­ing to a new Bren­nan Center report released today.

Since 1996, the study shows, the Sunshine state has added more than 20 new categor­ies of finan­cial oblig­a­tions to those accused and convicted of a crime. The fees are levied even on those who have no money and cannot pay. Increas­ingly, the result is a self-perpetu­at­ing cycle of debt—and some­times further incar­cer­a­tion—­for those re-enter­ing soci­ety after prison.

The new study shows that the Flor­ida legis­lature increas­ingly relies on “user fees” paid by indi­gent defend­ants to finance not just the crim­inal justice system but other state oper­a­tions as well.

“As unem­ploy­ment hovers around 10 percent, it is time to consider whether heap­ing more debt on those unable to afford it is a sens­ible and moral approach to finan­cing state func­tions,” said Rebekah Diller, author of The Hidden Costs of Flor­id­a’s Crim­inal Justice Fees. “For many reas­ons, this is simply bad public policy.”

The report also raises key ques­tions about the effi­ciency of the prac­tice. Many of these fees are uncol­lect­ible, leav­ing the court system under­fun­ded.  In some places, collec­tion costs are borne partly by counties and court clerks, and the adju­dic­a­tion of fee payments incurs even more costs.

Among the find­ings:

1. The Flor­ida Legis­lature has elim­in­ated payment exemp­tions for the indi­gent, thus demand­ing revenue from a popu­la­tion unable to pay;

2. In Leon County, collec­tion prac­tices resul­ted in more than 800 arrests for fail­ure to appear at debt hear­ings and more than 20,000 hours of jail time alone in one year.

3. Flor­ida routinely suspends drivers’ licenses for fail­ure to make payments, a prac­tice that sets the debtor up for a vicious cycle of “driv­ing with a suspen­ded license” convic­tions;

4. Flor­ida allows private debt collec­tion firms to add up to a 40 percent surcharge on unpaid debt.

Among the recom­mend­a­tions:

1. The Legis­lature should exempt those unable to pay crim­inal justice fees from legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions;

2. Payment plans should be tailored to an indi­vidu­al’s abil­ity to pay, as state law already requires;

3. Flor­id­a’s Supreme Court should adopt court rules to end the new debt­ors’ prison;

4. Counties can save money by elim­in­at­ing debt-related arrests for fail­ure to appear and result­ing incar­cer­a­tion in already crowded jails.

Flor­id­a’s increas­ing reli­ance on fee revenue coin­cides with a rising concern about policies that affect massive numbers of Flor­idi­ans with a crim­inal convic­tion. Flor­ida has the third-largest prison popu­la­tion of any state. Nearly 90 percent of the more than 100,000 people currently in Flor­id­a’s state pris­ons will be released, and, if past trends persist, nearly one-third will be re-incar­cer­ated for a new crime.

The report also offers longer-term reforms, such as recon­sid­er­ing legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions in felony cases.

For more inform­a­tion or to set up an inter­view, please contact Susan Lehman at 212–998–6318 or email; or Jean­ine Plant-Chirlin at 646–265–7721 or email jean­