Fines and fees hurt every Floridian.
They make our communities less safe, they perpetuate and exacerbate poverty, and they extract millions of dollars from the most vulnerable among us, particularly communities of color.
Here’s the Problem:
Florida needs to stop treating courts as revenue centers and fully and fairly fund the courts through general revenue. Over the past three decades, Florida has created more than 20 new types of fines and fees and enacted 50 new fines and fees statutes, marking what might be the largest increase in court costs nationwide—and Florida funds its courts almost entirely from fines and fees. Florida has over 115 different types of fees and surcharges, the second highest number in the country.
Not only is Florida extracting millions of dollars from its low-income communities, it’s a leader in poverty traps. More than 1.1 million Floridians have had their driver’s license suspended simply because they cannot afford to pay a fine—in Miami-Dade County, more than one in five drivers have their license suspended for nonpayment. Across Florida, over 78% of suspended licenses in 2017 were suspended for failing to pay a court debt. Over 70% of those licenses that are suspended for non-payment are not reinstated within a year from when they were suspended – which means suspending a driver’s license is ineffective at bringing in revenue and only serves to further destabilize low income communities.
Florida must stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees. Driver’s license suspension for nonpayment of fines and fees is cruel and counterproductive. Many Floridians need to drive to get to work, take their children to school or a family member to the doctor. As a result, many people are forced to drive even when their license is suspended. And even attempts to address the problem cost money—in Miami-Dade County, motorists who are arrested for this offense can be diverted into the Drive Legal Program, but it requires a $175 enrollment fee. Instead of focusing our limited resources on reckless drivers who threaten public safety, we have criminalized poverty.
Florida needs to abolish juvenile fines and fees. Florida charges fines and fees to youth who are subjected to the justice system, imposing enormous burdens on children and families – even though the expected collections rate for juvenile fines and fees can be as low as 9%.
Florida should offer diversion programs free of charge: Florida charges fees to defendants who participate in diversion programs. For instance, Florida’s Misdemeanor Pretrial Diversion Program can cost $360-720 depending on the length of the program, plus a $50 fee to cover the cost of prosecution, plus hundreds of dollars in court costs, plus any additional fees for drug or alcohol treatment programs, drug tests, anger management classes, and so on. Diversion programs are an important way to reduce unnecessary incarceration, but access to these programs should not depend on a defendant’s ability to pay for them.
Florida State’s Attorneys should stop prosecuting driving with suspended license charges for cases where a license is suspended only because of unpaid court debt. In Florida, a conviction for driving with a suspended license carries a fine of up to $500 or 60 days of jail time. Prosecuting and incarcerating people for a suspension based on unpaid court debt criminalizes poverty and further destabilizes communities. According to the American Association of Motor Vehicles, “the costs of arresting, processing, administering, and enforcing social nonconformance related driver license suspensions create a significant strain on budgets and other resources and detract from highway and public safety priorities.”
The Fines and Fees Justice Center’s Florida state campaign is the first sustained effort to reform harmful fines and fees practices statewide.
Our goal is to abolish fees in the justice system and to ensure that fines are equitably imposed and enforced.
FFJC is building a broad-based reform coalition including community organizations, advocacy groups, religious leaders, judges, defenders, prosecutors, law enforcement, and business community leaders. At the same time, we are documenting practices and gathering data about how fines and fees are imposed and enforced in Florida to better inform our campaign’s strategy.
We have also joined the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform, a bipartisan coalition working to combat the over-criminalization of Floridians. Together, our coalitions will work to end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees in Florida.
Florida Statewide Priorities
For the 2019 Legislative Session, the FFJC is closely monitoring legislation that has the potential to change the landscape of driver’s license suspension for nonpayment of fines and fees. While we applaud every effort to modify the unjust suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of fines and fees, our ultimate goal is to end driver’s license suspension for nonpayment of fines and fees altogether.
SB 734, sponsored by Senator Rouson (D), is a bill which addresses driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees. The bill provides that driver’s licenses may not be suspended for failure to pay fines and fees unless the person has the ability to pay but refuses to do so. It also provides that courts must provide alternatives to immediate payment of fines and fees for people who are indigent, such as payment plans and community service.
FFJC supports efforts to end driver’s license suspension for non-payment. While Senator Rouson’s bill would hopefully improve outcomes for lower income Floridians, there is still room for improvement. FFJC believes driver’s license suspension for non-payment of fines and fees never makes sense. Since Florida clerks rely heavily on fines and fees to fund court operations, it is imperative that the Florida legislature funds court operations with general revenue and stops relying on criminal convictions and traffic citations to fund governmental functions.
Related bills we are monitoring
HB 943 – Driver License Reinstatement Days: Establishes Driver License Reinstatement Days program to reinstate suspended or revoked driver licenses and allows clerks to reduce or waive fees and costs to facilitate reinstatement. (Rep LaMarca)
FFJC’s take-away: HB 943 does not solve the underlying problem in Florida of over-imposing fines and fees without taking individualized circumstances into account or ability to pay and it does not change the practice of using license suspension to compel payments. Until those issues are resolved, Florida will continue to criminalize those who are poor and cause unnecessary economic harm. HB 943 will have minimal impact and might distract Florida from more meaningful reform.
SB 1076 – Clerks of the Circuit Court: Contains various provision designed to help reinforce and stabilize local clerk budgets. (Sen. Brandes)
FFJC’s take-away: SB 1076 addresses the heart of the issue of fines and fees in Florida – that Clerks of Court are not properly funded through the legislature. Clerks rely on fines and fees to meet their operating expenses and that is not sustainable. FFJC is hopeful that SB 1076 is a step in the right direction and will open the door to further reforms.
Local priorities in Florida
FFJC is working with cities and counties on abolishing locally imposed discretionary fees imposed for services both pre and post-conviction. These fees include those associated with work release, curfew monitoring, electronic monitoring, and probation. FFJC is working with local jurisdictions to craft new policies that focus on rehabilitation and not revenue.
If you want to get involved with our campaign or simply learn more about it, please contact our Florida Campaign Director, Ashley Thomas, at email@example.com.