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Report on Florida's 'cash register justice' evokes Dickensian comparison

Florida's penchant for charging anyone entering the criminal justice system hefty fines, regardless of their ability to pay, has earned the system a new name: cash register justice.

That is just one of the conclusions of a report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan research institute based at the New York University School of Law. The report concludes that since 1996, Florida has added more than 20 new categories of fees to the court system while eliminating all of the exemptions for the indigent and others who are the least able to pay.

In the last two years alone and legislators have scrambled to balance the budget, they have raised court fees to pay for things outside of the court system, the report concluded, and imposed new fees or raised existing ones on anyone convicted of crimes, using a public defender, or who failed to pay a fine within 90 days.

The result: a vicious cycle. "What this debt does is, it poses another barrier for them to get back on their feet,'' said Rebekah Diller, author of the report. In many counties when people can't pay, they are arrested, sit in jail and cost government more than they would have collected had the fees been paid. 

The report was commissioned by the Florida Bar Foundation and received legal help from former FSU president and former School of Law Dean Sandy D’Alemberte and his wife, Patsy Palmer. D'Alemberte said an afternoon spent watching Leon County's Collections Court reminded him of Charles Dickens whose father was arrested and sent to debtors prison -- an embarrassment the British author later said affected him the rest of his life. 

"We have a court system being run on the back of people who could least afford to pay...We thought we had eliminated debtors prison in the United States,'' D'Alemberte said. "I believe it raises very signficant constitutional questions and moral questions.''