World and Nation

Cash-Strapped Courts Press For Fines and Fees Owed

Valerie Gainous paid her debt to society, but almost went to jail because of a debt to Florida’s courts.

In 1996, she was convicted of writing bad checks; she paid restitution, performed community service and thought she was finished with the criminal justice system. This year, however, she received a letter from Collections Court telling her that she was once again facing jail time — this time for failing to pay $240 in leftover court fees and fines, which she says she cannot afford.

Gainous has been caught up in the state’s aggressive system to collect the court fines and fees that keep its judiciary system working. Judges themselves dun people who have fallen behind in their payments, but unlike other creditors, they can throw debtors in jail — and they do, by the thousands.

As Florida’s budget has tightened with the economic crisis, efforts to step up the collections process have intensified, and court clerks say the pressure is on them to bring in every dollar.

Other states are intrigued by Florida’s success, and several have also cracked down on people who owe fines. John Dew, the executive director of the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corp., said other states were “really looking to what we’re doing in Florida.”

Advocates for the poor have urged other states not to follow Florida’s example of squeezing defendants harder to make up for budget cuts.

Florida, however, has continued to tighten its grip. Since 2004, the Legislature has required courts to support their operating expenses substantially, through fees collected by county clerks. Some of the clerks use collection agents, while about a third use the Collections Courts, state officials said.

Around Leon County, there are some 5,400 outstanding “blue writs” — the civil equivalent of an arrest warrant for failing to appear and pay fees. Some people come in and pay when they receive their summons; others spend a night or more in jail, often having been arrested when the writ pops up during incidents like routine traffic stops.

It can be expensive to get arrested. Nancy Daniels, a Florida public defender, said that fines and fees for a first offense on third-degree felonies like credit card fraud or cocaine possession are around $500 — $340 in court costs, a $100 prosecution fee and $50 for the public defender application fee.