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.