TAMPA -- A new report from the public defense group of the American Bar Association says Florida's court systems are driving low-income people accused of low-level crimes into debt with fines and fees they can't afford to pay.
The report focused on misdemeanor defendants, and says rules keep Florida's courts from looking at ability to pay, or to reduce or waive fees and fines.
According to the report, the most common outcome of a failure-to-pay situation is driver license suspension, which affected more than 700,000 Floridians at last count.
Sarah Couture, Florida director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, says that those who don't have transportation often end up missing more hearings, leading to more fines and potentially arrest warrants. Those aren't warrants for the debt per se, but for not showing up for the hearings.
The courts are also allowed to assess late fees. All of this adds up to more debt for low-income misdemeanor defendants.
The report calls for the state to stop suspending driver licenses for inability to pay a fee or fine, and for giving judges more discretion to reduce or waive fines and fees based on a defendant's ability to pay. "There's very little discretion that judges have, when it comes to these fees," Couture said. Court clerks have objected to removing the ability to suspend licenses, saying it's the only tool they have to get non-payers to comply.
One roadblock to major change: the state Constitution requires court clerks' offices to raise money through fines and fees, as they get no allocations from the state budget. "Their budgets are based off these fees, costs and surcharges," Couture said.
There has been progress, according to Couture. In 2021, legislation created a single uniform payment plan form and set a monthly payment plan based on two percent of income or $25, whichever amount is greater.
Former State Senator Jeff Brandes worked on these issues while in the Legislature. Now founder of the Florida Policy Project, Brandes says the fines and fees placed on those facing low-level charges create "a negative cycle and no-win scenario for indigent defendants." His group applauds the ABA report for pointing out policy that needs significant reform. "The recommendations made align with our mission to identify best practices to create better outcomes in a system that is fundamentally broken,” Brandes said in a statement.
Find out more by listening to an interview with Sarah Couture below: