A growing trend around the country, and especially in Florida, is to jail people who cannot afford to pay fines in criminal cases. As states tighten budgets and courts increasingly become dependent on fines to fund their budgets, states increase the amounts of fines to sustain their operation. These “user fees” seem innocuous enough: if a person commits a crime, he or she should pay for it. However, because courts and court systems depend on these fines, the fines have increased to the point where they are difficult for the middle class to pay and are impossible for those who live in poverty to afford. In the legal world, this phenomenon is referred to as “cash register justice”, and the threat of jail time is used to enforce it. In a country where we pride ourselves on not having debtors prisons, we seem to have lost our way. It is illegal for a consumer collection agency to threaten jail for a consumer debt, but when the government jails people for an inability to pay a fine, we turn a blind eye. States like Florida have become increasingly reliant on fines to finance governmental functions and this system creates a cycle of poverty because the working poor cannot afford to pay the fines, get jailed, and fall even further behind. In some cases, courts suspend people’s licenses for not being able to pay which makes it very difficult to earn a living and pay the fine. This study, The Hidden Costs of Florida’s Justice Fees, makes recommendations that include: exempting indigent defendants from legal financial obligations; allowing payment plans based upon ability to pay; eliminating incarceration for an inability to pay; allowing community service work in lieu of paying fines; and suspending driver’s licenses only when a person has the ability to pay a fine and refuses to do so.
Following graduation from Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, Eric Stevenson held a number of positions including Assistant State Attorney in the First Judicial Circuit of Florida. Eric has been practicing with partner Christopher Klotz since 2015 litigating personal injury and car accidents in Alabama and Florida.