The Hidden Costs of Florida’s Criminal Justice Fees


Florida has added more than 20 new categories of fines and fees to the criminal justice process since 1996.

This report examines the impact of the Florida Legislature’s decision to levy “user fees” on people accused and convicted of traffic violations, misdemeanors and felonies without providing exemptions for the indigent.

The researchers found that Florida relies heavily on fees to underwrite its criminal justice system and, at times, uses revenue generated by fees to fill gaps in justice system and state budgets. In many cases, the courts and outside collection agencies are unable to collect the debt. Performance standards for court clerks, for example, expect that only 9% of fees levied in felony cases will be collected. Aggressive collection practices result in a range of collateral consequences: missed payments produce more fees and unpaid costs prompt the suspension of driving privileges. Moreover, collection practices are not uniform across the state. While court clerks are generally responsible for collecting outstanding fines and fees, in some judicial circuits, the courts themselves take a more active role, issuing warrants for arrest of individuals who fail to appear in court to explain missed payments.

You can read the full report via the Brennan Center for Justice. Additionally, FFJC’s Florida Campaign is pushing to reform fines and fees practices statewide.

Key Findings
  • Florida increasingly relies on fees to finance core government functions; the Legislature has added more than 20 new categories of fines and fees to the criminal justice process since 1996.
  • Florida law requires clerks to send outstanding court debt to private collections companies once it is 90 days delinquent. Additionally, Florida allows private debt collection firms to add up to a 40 percent surcharge on unpaid court debt.
  • Florida routinely suspends driver’s licenses for failure to make payments.
  • Driving on a suspended license can be charged as a felony if the defendant has been convicted twice before on the misdemeanor charge.
  • Florida courts often fail to consider inability to pay when imposing fines and fees.
  • Florida law permits people to pay their debt through community service, but most courts have no such programs.
  • In some counties, courts arrest individuals who miss court dates scheduled to discuss debt from fines and fees, disrupting lives and employment. This practice resulted in more than 800 arrests and more than 20,000 hours of jail time in Leon County alone in one year.
  • The Legislature should exempt indigent defendants and fees.
  • The Legislature should reconsider levying fines and fees in felony cases – in which collection rates are extremely low – without a full understanding of how the debt may affect an individual’s attempt to re-enter their community.
  • Payment plans should be tailored to an individual’s ability to pay, as state law already requires.
  • Florida’s Supreme Court should adopt court rules to end the use of debtors’ prisons. Courts should not authorize incarceration for failure to appear at debt hearings.
  • Counties can save money by eliminating debt-related arrests for failure to appear and resulting incarceration in already overcrowded local jails.
  • Florida should provide counsel for defendants in all collections or fines and fees-related contempt proceedings that may result in incarceration.
  • Courts should offer community service programs that build job skills to all those who cannot afford to repay.
  • Court clerks should suspend driver’s licenses only in those cases in which an individual can afford to repay court debt but refuses to do so.
Rebekah Diller
The Brennan Center for Justice