On any weekday, it’s common to see a line of people in Miami-Dade County courts trying to get their driver’s license reinstated largely due to unpaid fines and fees.
A new study found that, while the county is making efforts to help people who can’t afford those payments to get their licenses back by offering community service in lieu of paying, those efforts account for a small percentage of people getting back their licenses. And Florida, like other states, does not measure the cost of collections—if they’re profitable or if they’re losing money.
The study by the Brennan Center for Justice found in 2017 Miami-Dade County assessed more than $10 million in fines and of that $12,000 was waived for community service.
“Waivers and community service credits are almost never used in the county courts, satisfying less than 1 percent of all fees and fines assessed,” the researchers wrote. Nearly all of Florida's fines and fees are statutory requirements which makes it more difficult to waive the amount owed even if a person can't afford to pay.
Florida allows licenses to be suspended for a wide-range of driving and non-driving related offenses. For low-income communities of color that are disproportionately policed, researchers noted, suspending licenses for unpaid fines and fees have a disparate impact that can create “a cycle of debt and incarceration.”
Researchers observed Miami-Dade’s criminal traffic court over the course of the study and found judges wanted to alleviate the financial costs for the people who came before them.
“In cases for which the defendant showed up, the judge often reduced a citation to a lesser offense,” the researchers wrote. “The judge was clearly concerned about the well-being of the defendants, at one point saying, ‘Knock it down to a parking ticket so he doesn’t lose his license and his livelihood.’”
It’s unclear if Miami-Dade courts’ collections of fines and fees is a profitable venture. Suspending licenses, enforcement and tracking down collections comes with its own cost to the system—police, courts, prosecutors, public defenders, and jails.
From 2013 to 2015 Miami-Dade had a collection rate of 65 percent of fines and fees owed.
According to the study, counties in Texas and New Mexico spent anywhere from more than 41 cents to $1.17 to collect every dollar owed. Those numbers were not available for Florida and do not take into account additional costs like enforcing warrants.
In 2019, an Oregon proposal to eliminate suspending licenses for unpaid fines estimated a nearly $1 million savings by the Oregon Department of Transportation from expenses related to processing costs and the resources used to answer questions about suspensions. In Washington state, drivers license suspension prosecutions cost nearly $38 million in 2015, according to the study, more than half of what the state received in collected fines and fees.
Florida state lawmakers have expressed bi-partisan interest in eliminating driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines, but because the state funds the clerk or court offices through the money it collects, figuring out where that money would come from has held up reform measures.
“Some have tried to justify these practices as necessary for generating revenue. But we found that the work involved in fees and fines is extremely costly and inefficient,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, one of the study's authors and acting director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.
Among the study’s recommendations is the elimination of court-imposed fees, implementing a sliding scale based on ability to pay and an end to jail time for inability to pay.