If you have ever received a citation for a driving violation or filed some paperwork at your local court office, you have contributed to Florida’s collection of court fines and fees.
In 2018, the state collected at least $755 million through criminal and traffic fines and fees, which financed state, county, and municipal governments. While many people may pay the amount due and move on, these fines and fees, and the role they play in financing our courts, adversely impact many Floridians, especially those with low income.
Fines are the costs one pays as a punishment for an offense, and fees are additional operational charges added by the government. In a lot of cases, the levied fees cost more than the actual fine. For example, there’s a $25 fine for driving 6-9 miles over the speed limit. However, when added together, the fees total $106, resulting in a ticket costing $131. That amount is distributed throughout various government entities, with counties and clerks of courts receiving at least 70 percent, and the remainder going to the state’s general revenue and trust funds.
In 2018, roughly half of Florida counties reported collecting a total of $28 million from a $30 fee on traffic offenses that were used to fund court facilities. In other words, that $30 fee was charged 924,000 times.
Together, fines and fees constitute less than 1 percent of the state budget and 2 percent of almost all counties’ budgets. Yet, these funds are nearly indispensable to some government agencies, like the clerks of courts. To enforce collections, the state employs the harmful tactic of suspending driver’s licenses of people who can’t pay their fines and fees, most of whom are Black and Brown Floridians with low-income.
Driver’s license suspension pushes many Floridians who can’t afford to pay into a spiral of financial challenges. For example, studies have shown that driver’s license suspensions often lead to a loss of employment. Moreover, nonpayment accounts are sent to private collection agencies that can impose up to 40 percent in extra fees, which creates additional debt for people who are already unable to pay their original (and much smaller) owed amount. Sending accounts to private collection agencies hurts those without the money to pay more than it helps the state, because the amount that ends up being collected is meager compared to what is assessed. Notably, collections agencies only collected 10 percent of outstanding criminal debt and 31 percent of civil traffic debt in 2018.
As lawmakers continue to manage a strained budget and respond to revenue shortfalls as a result of COVID-19, they may start looking at fines and fees as a viable means to raise revenue, like they did after the 2008 recession when Florida’s increasing filing fees were among the highest in the country. This would be a mistake. Fines and fees are not an effective revenue source for government operations, and they inflict severe financial stress on too many Floridians and their families.
Tachana Joseph-Marc is a policy analyst at Florida Policy Institute, a non-profit think tank focused on statewide issues.