Florida could end court fees for kids. Will election-year politics stop it?

States across the country have stopped assigning court “user fees” for kids, who can rarely afford to pay them.
Dequan Jackson was 16 when this photo was taken for a front-page story in The New York Times about how states, including Florida, assign hundreds of dollars in court fees to juveniles. Other states have dropped the practice, but Florida has not.
Dequan Jackson was 16 when this photo was taken for a front-page story in The New York Times about how states, including Florida, assign hundreds of dollars in court fees to juveniles. Other states have dropped the practice, but Florida has not.
Published Jan. 31, 2022|Updated Feb. 1, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Dequan Jackson’s only brush with the law was at age 13, when he was charged with battery for bumping into a teacher while horsing around in a school hallway.

Even though he was in middle school, he was left saddled with hundreds of dollars in court “user fees” he and his mother couldn’t afford to pay. Those fees are how Florida finances its criminal justice system.

Because he couldn’t pay, he stayed on probation another two years, which added $1 per day in probation fees and kept him from attending after-school activities.

In 2016, he told his story to The New York Times for a front-page article about how states, including Florida, impose court costs on juveniles, even though they usually don’t have jobs to pay the money back.

Since then, Jackson has visited the White House and testified before Congress about the effects of juvenile fees. He’s now a senior about to graduate from Colorado State University. He’s seen states across the country end court fees for juveniles.

But not his home state of Florida.

Despite bipartisan support, bills that would stop courts from fining kids when they enter the juvenile justice system have yet to be heard in committees during this year’s legislative session, scheduled to end on March 11.

Senate Bill 428, called the “Debt-Free Justice for Children Act,” and the companion House Bill 257 would end court fees for juveniles. It would not end court fines, which are criminal penalties, nor would it end restitution to victims.

If passed, Florida would join a slew of states to end the practice. In the last few years, states from Texas to Oregon have eliminated vast swaths of user fees for kids.

Advocates include criminal justice reform advocates on both sides of the aisle, and they make both a moral and practical argument for the cause.

In the 1990s, Florida changed how it pays for its prosecutors, public defenders and court operations. In a reaction to the growing cost of the state’s tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and ‘90s, voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow courts to charge defendants “user fees.”

Courts today charge all types of fees for misdemeanor and felony charges, such as a $100 prosecution fee, a $100 fee to use a public defender and a $50 fee for applying to use that public defender.

The fees, which usually total hundreds of dollars, are assessed regardless of whether the defendant is found guilty.

And failing to pay them can have critical consequences. In 2017, 1.1 million Florida drivers had their licenses suspended because of unpaid court debts, according to the advocacy group Fines and Fees Justice Center. For those with felony convictions, unpaid court debts can also keep them from voting, after the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a contentious bill in 2020.

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For kids, user fees are both counterproductive and impractical, advocates say. In one of the only studies about the subject, higher court costs were linked to higher recidivism rates for juveniles.

And kids’ part-time after-school jobs may not be enough to pay the amounts back.

“They’re in school,” said Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, the sponsor of the Senate bill. “I think we have to look at the totality of the picture here and allow these kids to have a fighting chance.”

“It should be a no-brainer that these kids aren’t shackled for the rest of their lives,” said Skylar Zander, state director for Americans for Prosperity Florida, a right-leaning group funded by Charles Koch.

Election-year politics might be to blame for the bills receiving a cold reception so far, though.

“Some members believe being tough on crime is a great election-year talking point,” Zander said.

Book and the two House bill sponsors, Rep. Nick Duran, D-Miami, and Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, have been working to make the bill more amenable to conservative leaders.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has been opposed to some of the criminal justice reforms that have been proposed in the Legislature in recent years. The former prosecutor said he hadn’t seen this year’s bill and couldn’t comment on it. But he said eliminating fees posed a practical problem: How do you make up the cost?

“If you ask the public, ‘Hey, this kid stole eight cars, do you want to pay for their electronic monitoring?’ I guarantee the answer’s going to be ‘No,’ ” Sprowls said. “At the end of the day, look, someone’s going to be responsible for that.”

Adults who are assessed fees rarely pay the money back. Court clerks expect to receive 10 percent or less of the fees they assess each year.

Juveniles are no different. In 2019, only 11 percent of the $5.1 million assessed against kids by courts across the state was collected, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center and the Juvenile Law Center.

“It’s such a small amount that’s ever collected that you wonder what’s the true purpose of it?” Duran said. “We’re not necessarily leaning on this to fund the criminal justice system, so what’s the point?”

Florida’s budget is also flush with billions of dollars of federal stimulus money and an unexpected windfall in sales tax revenues. DeSantis is proposing spending $1 billion to suspend the gas tax for several months next year and placing billions more into reserves.

For Jackson, his lone run-in with the juvenile system was “eye-opening.”

“I had no clue what the juvenile system was like,” he said. “I’d never been in actual trouble before.”

He had to do anger management and community service and was assessed about $200 in court fees, a nominal amount for many people but one that neither he nor his mother could afford. Because they couldn’t pay, he couldn’t complete his sentence, he said. And the costs continued to pile up during his additional time on probation.

“By the time it stacked up, we definitely couldn’t pay it,” he said.

The probation included a curfew that kept him from after-school activities and late football practices, even when he was a star on the varsity team.

“I missed out on all the school stuff, especially on days when I had to go to court,” he said.

After the New York Times story, donations paid off the fees. Universities recruited him to play football, and he chose Colorado State.

In the spring, he’s set to graduate with a degree in sociology, with a concentration in criminal justice. He’s a star linebacker, leading his team in tackles in 2020 and 2021 until he was injured. Instead of declaring for the NFL draft this year, he’ll wait one more season and seek a master’s degree.

He’s seen legislatures across the country change their laws on fees.

“I thought Florida would be one of them.”