What is Cash Register Justice and How Does it Affect Defendants?

Florida felon voting rightsIn November 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved of reinstating felons’ voting rights (except for those convicted of murder or sex offenses) when they voted in favor of Amendment 4. More than one million offenders had their right to vote restored in January, and it seemed that we took an important step forward in expanding civil rights. However, the feeling of victory was fleeting. Not long afterward, lawmakers began debating how to interpret the law and passed legislation to disenfranchise about 80% of the felons who just had their voting rights restored.

Amendment 4 allowed convicted felons to register to vote after completing their sentences, including parole or probation. The historic vote repealed a 150-year-old statute which prevented anyone with a felony from voting — a significant hurdle facing ex-offenders reintegrating into society. Then the Florida Legislature responded by passing a law it deemed necessary to interpret Amendment 4. Senate Bill 7066 interprets “the completion of a sentence” to include payment of court debt and restitution. This means that per the statute, an offender’s sentence is not complete until he or she pays back any outstanding restitution and all court debt. So, ex-offenders cannot legally vote until that debt has been paid. The problem is that many people with criminal records can’t afford these fees, and most don’t even know they owe them or how much money they owe.

The State of Florida Largely Finances the Criminal Court System with Fees

Prisoners don’t have many opportunities to work and save money or otherwise prepare for life outside of prison. Naturally, most don’t have the means to pay the court for having been a prisoner. Florida’s exorbitant court costs place a heavy burden on a vulnerable population and trap them in a never-ending cycle of debt and recidivism. 

When a person is released from prison, he or she leaves with $50 and a bus ticket. Unless they find support through a non-profit organization dedicated to helping ex-offenders gain employment or have a family they can return to who can help them stay out of trouble, many end up back in prison within a few months or years. Those with felony convictions face enormous difficulty when applying for jobs. Unless a conviction was expunged and is no longer visible to employers, most employers won’t even ask about the conviction; they just move on to another candidate with no criminal record. 

This traps prisoners in a vicious cycle of debt. Often, those who produced an income from criminal activity return to crime to keep their heads above water, particularly as their debts increase due to interest and spending more time in prison. 

The State of Florida Doesn’t Know What Offenders Owe

To make matters worse, people who owe restitution often have no clue what they owe. There is no system that keeps track of a person’s court debts. If a person has been tried by more than one judge or in more than one jurisdiction, the fees they owe may vary from judge to judge and/or jurisdiction to jurisdiction. 

Calculating restitution is a complicated matter, and even if offenders could pay off their debts they’re not sure how much they owe or to whom they’re indebted. More than one entity may be in charge of collecting restitution, such as:

  • Court clerks
  • The Department of Corrections
  • Crime victims
  • Debt collectors

After probation, restitution that is owed becomes a civil lien, which may need to go to a clerk, victim, or debt collector. There is currently no state agency that keeps track of how much restitution offenders owe or what they have already paid. About one million Floridians with felony convictions owe some court debt, and because of this, they cannot vote.

Fines for Criminal Offenses are Arbitrary and Exorbitant

While it’s unclear who owes what amount of restitution, it’s obvious that court fees and fines are a big source of cash. The court system collected $864 million in fines and fees in 2018. More than $1 billion was ordered and $298 million was unpaid. 

Many legal financial obligations go unpaid because the people who owe them cannot afford them. If people don’t pay, court debts accrue interest and eventually go to collections just like regular debt. After 90 days, an unpaid court debt can accrue up to 40% interest. Some people call this a penalty on the poor since people who are strapped for cash cannot pay back fees with interest. 

The collection rate overall was pretty high in 2018: 74.25% of all court debt was collected according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center. Civil traffic cases brought in 91.93% of the fees while collection rates for other crimes was much lower. Felonies’ collection rate was 20.55%. Some classes of felonies, like drug trafficking, have such a low collection rate that the debt is considered uncollectible. 

The fines for different offenses vary wildly, with no apparent reason behind the pricing of certain offenses. A person could face a fine of as little as $25 for not having their concealed carry permit on them, or $500 for littering. Offenders also get nickel-and-dimed with fees. A first-degree misdemeanor traffic charge carries a fine of up to $1,000. Monetary penalties could also include court fees, such as:

  • A 5% surcharge on the fine
  • $17 for the Crimestoppers trust fund
  • $3 for the Crimestoppers fee
  • $50 in additional court costs
  • $10 for the Clerk of Court trust fund
  • $1 crimes compensation fee
  • $49 for the crimes compensation trust fund
  • $2 for local law enforcement education
  • $20 crimes prevention fund
  • $65 in additional costs
  • $30 for court facilities fund
  • $3 state radio system surcharge
  • And more, resulting in an additional $1,303 owed to the court. 

Offenders may also be required to pay fees for probation and other terms of release. One former prisoner, who spent 20 years in prison for selling and possessing cocaine under Florida’s habitual offender law, received a $2,335 bill for probation in Florida after completing his sentence. He was charged $64 per month for being on probation. 

Many offenders claim they cannot afford their regular bills and having to pay fees makes matters worse for them. Some admit to returning to a life of crime to get the money they need to clear their debt.Today, many feel that after a much-anticipated victory, the Florida government has found a way to once again disenfranchise voters.

Hiring the Right Defense Team is the First Step in Preserving Your Rights

Living without the possibility of voting for or against the people whose policies directly impact your life is no way to live in a democracy. The best way to preserve your right to vote is to hire a competent defense team to fight the charges against you from the start.

The Umansky Law Firm is a top-rated criminal defense law firm in Orlando that serves people facing misdemeanor, felony, and federal charges in Central Florida. Our team of skilled lawyers has more than 100 years of combined experience protecting the rights of the criminally accused. As former prosecutors, we understand the approach the state will take when trying to gain a conviction. Trust us to protect your interests through each stage of the criminal process.

Founder William Umansky serves on the Orange County Bar Association as Executive Council and is a current member of the Florida Justice Association, and we have board-certified criminal trial lawyers on staff who look forward to learning about your case. Call 407-228-3838 or complete our contact form for a free case review.

References:

https://www.floridabulldog.org/2019/08/floridas-cash-register-justice-still-leaves-many-felons-ineligible-to-vote/

https://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/local/state/2019/11/21/florida-felons-still-registering-amidst-amendment-4-legal-battle/4223319002/