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Proposed legislation could break the cycle of debt for many caught in Florida’s legal system

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It’s a vicious circle: Poor people who can’t afford their court-related costs and penalties incur escalating costs for not paying, further indebting them to the state.

“It’s a circle that some people get stuck in and they can’t get out,” Christopher Torres, a Tallahassee defense attorney and former Florida assistant attorney general, told Watchdog.org.

Compounding the problem is the state’s practice of suspending drivers’ licenses as both a punishment for delinquent payments and an incentive to get people to pay up. For those who can’t afford their financial obligations, the suspensions only add more obstacles to meeting debts and ultimately moving on.

A new reform bill aims to break the cycle.

Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg is proposing legislation to modify legal-debt payment terms and prohibit drivers’ license suspensions statewide for individuals demonstrating an inability to pay court obligations and other legal penalties.

The St. Petersburg Republican is teaming up with state Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Tampa Bay-area Democrat, to push the reform measure. An identical bill, also sponsored by Brandes, died in an appropriations committee last year despite unanimous support from fellow legislators at two separate committees stops.

Brandes sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and helped pass a landmark civil asset forfeiture bill in 2016. A second attempt at reforming legal system costs and burdens indicates renewed confidence that the reforms could pass this year.

Local clerks of court are required to accept monthly debt payments equal to one-twelfth of 2 percent of a person’s annual net income. It’s a flexible standard meant to accommodate various income backgrounds.

But payments are often arranged inflexibly and at higher rates.

“In Florida, this presumption is often ignored and payment levels are set at fixed amounts,” states a Brennan Center for Justice report on criminal justice debt.

Brandes’ bill would cap annual payments made to local clerks of court at no more than 2 percent of annual net income, unless an applicant agrees to pay more.

In Florida, clerks of court also turn over unpaid accounts after 90 days to private attorneys or debt collection services. State law allows them to tack on 40 percent surcharges to underlying debts.

The proposed legislation wouldn’t abolish the surcharges, but it would limit the amount of time private collectors could pursue legal system debts to no more than 5 years. It would also deny any additional charges beyond what clerks of court contractually negotiate through an open bidding process.

Suspension problems

With respect to drivers’ licenses, prohibiting suspensions for low-income people would help tackle the inherent inefficiency of obstructing good-faith efforts to drive to work and earn an income.

“Most people in Florida are dependent on driving,” Torres said. “If you can’t drive then it’s harder to work or find employment. … Getting caught driving illegally means new problems added to old problems, maybe even an arrest, and the cycle starts over again.”

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 1.5 million notices of suspension were issued in 2014, mostly originating from “failure to comply” or “failure to pay” offenses.

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a legislative research office, reports that a large percentage of license suspensions relating to delinquent court costs take more than two years to reinstate.

Reinstatement requires full payment of all financial obligations, enrolling in a payment plan (if not already enrolled), or a court order granting relief.

The amount of time and money involved for many suspension reinstatements leaves the door open for illegal driving. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimates that as many as three-fourths of drivers with suspended or revoked licenses continue to drive.

Torres said the penalties for driving with a suspended license hinge on intent. If a law enforcement officer determines that an individual was driving “without knowledge” that their license was suspended, then the penalty is a civil offense punishable by a traffic ticket.

If an officer determines that a driver was “knowingly” driving with a suspended license, then the offense is criminal and warrants arrest.

Under current law, hardship exemptions for business or employment purposes do not apply for failing to pay court obligations and legal penalties, even though they’re available for many driving-related suspensions, such as driving under the influence.

Prohibiting license suspensions for indigents, disabled persons, bankrupt individuals and government assistance recipients could enhance efforts to pay off legal obligations and reduce the cycle of escalating burdens and taxpayer resources required to sustain the merry-go-round process.

The question may be whether the state and local governments are willing to lose the revenue streams.

Revenue vs. debtors

According to a legislative staff analysis, if Brandes’ 2016 bill would’ve passed it would’ve caused significant government revenue losses.

“The bill would likely have a negative impact on local tax collectors and clerks of court who retain a portion of revenues from certain drivers’ license sanctions when issuing reinstatements, in addition to other fees retained by them associated with drivers’ license suspensions and revocations.”

The Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, a statewide association, estimated clerks of court would suffer annual losses ranging from $24.7 million to $82.4 million, depending on the success of the reforms.

If 15 percent of collections were lost because of the new payment plan modifications, licensing reforms, or the bill’s promotion of community service as a way to pay work off debts at minimum wage, then clerks of court could lose an estimated $24.7 million in revenue.

If participation jumped to 50 percent, then $82.4 million in estimated losses could result.

Add on another $7.5 million in annual recurring funds for new full-time employees and IT support for payment plan maintenance, and legislators might balk at the reforms again.

But the issue isn’t going away. Criminal justice reformers are confronting financially burdensome, and sometimes insurmountable, legal system practices across the country.

Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, says the cycle of escalating court obligations and legal penalties is too expensive in both human and taxpayer costs.

“While there is a legitimate role for fines and fees, their use has skyrocketed over the last few decades, with the penalties appearing to be more tied to generating revenue for government rather than legitimate public safety purposes,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union asserts that “state and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision.”

The debate between revenue and reform will be heard at the state Capitol when the annual legislative session convenes on March 7.

Last year, the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers association reported $894 million in total collections for court costs, monetary penalties, fees, service charges and other costs. The collection rate was 73 percent.

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