Thursday, April 23, 2009

new collections court

Sarasota County is joining an aggressive statewide push for the courts to collect money from residents who owe fines and fees to the court system for crimes and civil infractions.

Starting Thursday, the new collections court gives a judge the power to order debtors arrested if they miss a month on their payment plan, and then do not show up in court to explain why.

The judge can also ask what the debtor spends money on - cable TV or cigarettes, for example - and require them to end frivolous spending until the court fees and fines are paid.

Brennan Center report on court fees in Florida

Selected findings from forthcoming Brennan Center report on court fees in Florida

The operation of Collections Courts is a clear example of Florida’s counterproductive court debt scheme in practice. These courts are set up largely to deal with the inevitable downstream consequences of a system in which financial obligations are imposed at sentencing regardless of a defendant’s ability to pay.

Ostensibly, Collections Court gives the defendant an opportunity to explain why he or she is unable to pay and gives judges the discretion to work out a reasonable payment schedule. However, judges are not permitted to waive any fines or fees, even when it is clear that an individual is indigent. While state law does permit judges to convert financial obligations into community service for those unable to pay, it appears that defendants are not generally offered this option in Leon County. Even more troubling, numerous persons who have completed their underlying sentences end up arrested and processed through the criminal justice system again, not for any violation related to their underlying crime, but rather solely because they have failed to appear in Collections Court and to explain why they are late on a payment. These findings analyze Collections Court-related arrests in Leon County over a one-year period.

Click here to download PDF of selected findings, footnotes included.