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.