In tough economic times, states are looking everywhere for money.
Starting today, Florida plans to tap a sustainable resource: criminals.
A new state law imposes new court fees and increases for criminal offenses as well as other basic court-related procedures.
People convicted of drunken driving will now pay up to $1,000 more. State attorneys and public defenders will charge $100 each to cover the cost of prosecuting and defending a felony crime.
And speeders will pay at least $17.50 more for each infraction.
Even folks who live on the right side of the law will feel the pinch.
Filing for a divorce? Settling an estate? Evicting a tenant? Bring more money. Most civil court actions cost more.
These fees are just a sampling of more than 100 court-related charges increasing to help a judicial system strapped for cash.
The hikes, which come at a time when few can afford to pay more, raised the eyebrows of Denise Corona, a 52-year-old server from Spring Hill.
"It's a very bad time for be asking for more," she said. "It seems to me like it's easy money to catch speeders."
But more important, it represents a controversial shift toward a self-sustaining court system. And one likely to garner little backlash from a public unsympathetic to lawbreakers.
"It's a part of everyday life now," said Lily Kircher, a 48-year-old Spring Hill accountant. "It's just one of those things — you just have to pay it."
But the broader trend alarms many in the court system, including Bob Dillinger, who represents indigent clients as the Pinellas-Pasco public defender.
"They think they can run the criminal justice system on the backs of poor people, but it's not going to work," he said.
A point of major contention is the new cost-of-prosecution and cost-of-defense fees that apply to anyone charged with a crime. The fees apply to each case, so a person charged with passing 10 worthless checks could face up to $2,000 in fees from attorneys, on top of fines or victim restitution.
The state estimates it will be able to collect only about 20 percent of these fees.
"That's one of the reasons people are criminals in the first place — because they don't have the money," said Brad King, the state attorney in the 5th Judicial Circuit.
State Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who shepherded the bill through the Legislature this year, said raising fees was necessary because some had not been adjusted in years, if not decades.
"If you use the court system, you're going to pay a little more toward your share of the cost," he said.
Crist, the Senate's criminal justice budget chairman, doesn't buy the talk coming from some prosecutors and public defenders.
"There's been a lot of rhetoric, and most of it's false or grossly distorted," Crist said. "They are trying to create a panic."
The augmented fees kept court-related agencies from the much deeper budget cuts felt by other state agencies, he said.
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.