CHICAGO, Feb. 7, 2024 — Nearly four years after announcing a national initiative to tackle pretrial justice issues, the public defense group of the American Bar Association released a new report today critical of how Florida treats indigent defendants facing low-level charges.
The report, “Penalizing the Poor: An Assessment of the Administration of Fines and Fees in Florida Misdemeanor Courts,” found the Florida court system too often assesses fines and fees that indigent defenders cannot afford, and they subsequently are jailed for their inability to pay. The report criticizes state officials for widely ignoring the “Ten Guidelines on Court Fines and Fees” adopted by the ABA in 2018, and urges Florida state and court leaders to revise court procedures “consistent with ABA policy.”
Specific recommendations include eliminating harmful fees, reducing the use of bench warrants and permitting alternative payments that fully consider the individual circumstances of each defendant.
The ABA report, released by the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense (SCLAID), is part of an ongoing effort of national partners, funded by the Houston-based Arnold Ventures. Launched in 2019, the National Partnership for Pretrial Justice includes more than 30 research, technical assistance, policy and advocacy organizations that work to advance pretrial justice nationally and operate in more than 35 states across the country.
Specifically, the report cited these shortcomings in Florida:
· Courts assess a wide variety of fees, not just upon conviction, but also through pretrial conditions and diversion programs. Most of these are “user fees,” which charge defendants for the administrative court costs, contrary to ABA guidelines. The report recommends eliminating these fees.
· Rules do not provide for timely assessment of ability to pay, nor do they provide for opportunities for courts to reduce or waive based on substantial hardship. The report recommends revising these procedures to ensure disclosure of fines and fees, as well as opportunities to seek reduction of amounts due to inability to pay.
· State law also allows courts to assess significant additional fees on people who cannot pay their fines and fees immediately, meaning the poor pay more and are often trapped in criminal justice involvement through their debt. The report recommends eliminating fees for payment plans and collections.
· The most common consequence of failure-to-pay in Florida is driver’s license suspension, with more than 700,000 Floridians having their licenses suspended for unpaid fines and fees. These suspensions prevent people from working ― damaging their chances of ever paying back their fines and fees ― and clogs the courts with driving-while-license-suspended cases. The report recommends eliminating driver’s license suspensions as a punishment for non-payment.
The report draws from observations and research over four years focused on the misdemeanor courts in the 2nd and 11th Judicial Circuits of the state.
The study is part of a multi-year comprehensive ABA effort that has included educational programs and support of federal legislation to incentivize states to end the use of driver’s license suspensions as a punishment for nonpayment of fines. In 2017, the policymaking ABA House of Delegates (HOD) urged state and local governments to adopt pretrial justice policies that do not punish defendants because of their economic status.
The report notes that its findings have not been reviewed nor approved by the HOD or the ABA Board of Governors and should not be construed as representing the position of the association.
About the ABA
The ABA is the largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law. View our privacy statement online. Follow the latest ABA news at www.americanbar.org/news and on X (formerly Twitter) @ABANews.2:
About Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures is a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States. Founded by Laura and John Arnold in 2010, Arnold Ventures’ core mission is to improve lives by investing in evidence-based solutions that maximize opportunity and minimize injustice. More information about Arnold Ventures’ work is available at https://www.arnoldventures.org/.