Fla. Courts' Fines And Fees Trap Poor In Debt, ABA Finds

By Emily Sawicki | February 7, 2024, 4:27 PM EST ·

The public defense group of the American Bar Association on Wednesday released a comprehensive report lambasting the fines and fees system in Florida's county-level misdemeanor court system, recommending the courts eliminate so-called user fees and establish an "ability-to-pay standard."

Courts in Florida impose numerous hurdles throughout the legal process, including through "misleading" fee disclosures, fees that punish individuals attempting to pay previously imposed fines, and license suspensions that make it difficult for people to continue working and increase debts, while also not providing access to counsel for those facing fees and fines, the report found.

The ABA's Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, in partnership with the philanthropic organization Arnold Ventures, spent nearly four years on the report. It draws on five years' worth of data collected from two misdemeanor courts: one in the Florida Panhandle encompassing Tallahassee and more rural outlying areas, and one in Miami-Dade County, Florida's most populous county.

The committee focused on Florida for the report in part because the state had earned a reputation for its practices surrounding its fines and fees, including its policy of blocking people who owe fines related to more serious infractions from voting, according to Malia N. Brink, senior policy attorney for the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law. Brink was a member of the research and drafting team for the report.

"I think it was a logical place to kind of look at this issue," Brink said. "Similarly, there's been a lot of publicity about the number of people who have driver's license suspensions that relate to the failure to pay fines and fees ... the publicity around some of those problems made it logical to look at what the process was in Florida."

The report found "roughly 600,000 people currently have a suspended license" in Miami-Dade County alone, amounting to one third of licensed drivers in the country, with 63% of suspensions due to a failure to pay.

Not only does the current justice system in Florida's misdemeanor courts trap low-income Floridians in a "cycle of increasing debt," the report found, but judges there are not empowered to do much about it.

"Time and time again, in courts across Florida, members of the ABA research team witnessed individuals assessed fines and fees far beyond their ability to pay. Their pleas for relief went unheeded regardless of veracity or merit because there is no recourse," the report states.

"Under Florida law judges are not permitted to waive or reduce fees on the basis of ability to pay," the report continues. "Often, defendants had significant past debt in collection from other unpaid fines and fees. Florida's fines and fees laws trap these individuals in a cycle of increasing debt and justice system involvement."

One thing judges can do is remove cases from collection, which stops collection fees from accruing, but the ABA task force members studying the courts found that "most judges are not willing to do so."

The report found that in the period between 2018 and 2023, Florida misdemeanor courts "routinely [fell] short of the ABA's Ten Guidelines on Court Fines and Fees," an August 2018 set of standards the ABA released to "provide practical direction for government officials, policymakers and others charged with developing, reforming and administering court fines and fees."

Published by the ABA Presidential Task Force on Building Public Trust in the American Justice System and approved by the ABA House of Delegates, the guidelines include limiting fees and fines; prohibiting "disproportionate sanctions" such as incarceration and driver's license suspensions for those who do not pay fees and fines; and establishing "ability-to-pay hearings" to set a baseline for what fees an individual can afford to pay, among others.

Over the past five years, Florida courts have fallen short of the guidelines in several meaningful ways, the ABA's latest report states, with "user fees" imposed throughout the justice process, including fees incurred to establish a payment plan and additional fees charged when individuals are unable to pay their original fees.

The 27-page report provided 17 recommendations for improvements to bring Florida's misdemeanor court system up to the standard established in the ABA guidelines on court fines and fees.

One suggestion is imposing a more transparent system for third-party debt collectors operating through the courts, which currently charge court users for fees that are not publicly available.

"The collections process in Florida is not like anything I've seen before," Brink said when asked what, if anything, surprised her while researching the report.

"Privatization in the criminal justice system, and the way in which having private entities that do parts of what you would normally associate with the criminal justice system raises costs to the people who are coming through it — it becomes like user fees," Brink said. "And that really is what's going on in Florida."

Florida courts should consider providing public defenders free of cost, thereby eliminating fees associated with hiring counsel, the report further recommended, and ensuring public defenders are educated on fines, fees and the consequences of not paying them.

"Florida's misdemeanor fines and fees trap citizens already struggling financially in a cycle of debt from which it is incredibly difficult to escape," the report states. "Florida should implement reforms to improve its fine and fees procedures and to ensure that its criminal justice system does not punish individuals simply for being poor."

Brink pointed out that part of what makes the report especially useful comes from the ABA's ability to study how court systems across the country differ. The report includes suggested "best practices" from other jurisdictions in several states including New Mexico, Oklahoma, Montana and California, showing how those courts were able to reverse similarly flawed policies.

When it comes to enacting the recommendations put forth in the report, Brink acknowledged that many changes would only be possible through legislation, including imposing ability-to-pay standards and halting driver's license suspensions for those who have outstanding fines and fees.

"I think [it] will require legislative action rather than simply court action," Brink said, later adding, "Public defenders feel like they can't ask courts to waive fines and fees because they know that judges don't have the power to do so. So there's a point where it really has to be a legislative change or potentially a challenge to that power — but it's a very difficult thing in Florida."

--Editing by Scott Russell.

Update: This story was updated to include commentary from Malia Brink.

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