State judicial systems have faced a heavy burden in these currently disastrous economic times. Looking for ways to balance budgets, required under state constitutions, many jurisdictions have cut back services, instituted hiring freezes, and even reduced court hours of operation. Despite these measures the red ink remains and states such as Florida have taken a new, and dangerous approach, to trying to stop the bleed. Florida courts have started an aggressive collections process to try and recover thousands of dollars in outstanding judicial fees. However, unlike civil collections processes, these collections efforts can land a person in jail.
As of 2004 the Florida legislature has required courts support their operations in large part through the collection of fees through the county clerk’s office. Some counties have gone so far as to set up separate Collections Courts designed only to process unpaid court fees. In places such as Leon County, over 800 people have been arrested or fined for failure to pay fees related to previous court appearances. Those previous appearances did not have to be criminal to subject someone to possible future incarceration. Family law matters such as divorce or child-support hearings often cost the parties involved hundreds of dollars in court fees– money difficult to come by when one is out of work or behind on child support. In places like Leon County courts issue writs for these outstanding fees. Sometimes people receive Summons of these writs, or sometimes these writs appear during a routine traffic stop or license renewal. The person facing the writ is then arrested and held until payment can be worked out. While the Constitution prohibits jailing an individual simply for failure to pay a debt, Florida officials get around this issue by saying these people are not jailed for failure to pay a debt– they are jailed for failure to abide by a court order mandating they pay a debt.
The harm to our judicial system due to routine and persistent underfunding is real and it is serious. When a court shuts down operations, even for a few hours a day, that means that someone trying to avoid foreclosure, to collect unpaid child support, or to seek relief from an abusive spouse must wait. Justice delayed is justice denied.
However, one must question the efficacy of pursuing those individuals clearly struggling simply to survive. Thankfully other states such as Georgia and Michigan have chosen alternative routes– ones that do not imprison people for the misfortune of having to come before the government while also being poor. Even those alternatives– shutting court offices, curtailing translation services– do extensive damage to the community as a whole. Given that our Constitution mandates quick, speedy, and equal access to our court systems, it is time we ask to what end our failure to fund our courts has risen to the level of a Constitutional crisis.
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