“The Republicans won't even give this bill a hearing"
Friday, April 9, 2021
Courtesy of the Florida House of Representatives
Rep. Andrew Learned
Alongside a pair of bills in the Florida House and Senate that, if passed, would mandate a more uniform, equitable approach to paying court fines and fees, another set of bills in the chambers — HB 565 and SB 492 — would establish a nonpartisan council to analyze the socio-economic issues of court debt. Rep. Andrew Learned (D-
Hillsborough) introduced the House bill while Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-Hillsborough/
Pinellas) introduced its Senate companion.
Staffed with representatives from all stakeholders with skin in this game, the Council on the Discretionary Imposition of Criminal Justice and Traffic Fines and Fees would be tasked with analyzing the impact of court debt on low-wage earners, people of color and the court system itself. It would also examine the consequences of nonpayment — such as the suspension of driver's licenses — and whether judicial discretion in assessing fees might reduce them. The council would also review how 15 other states collect their court fees and produce a cost-benefit analysis of collection strategies along with a full report of all of their findings.
This is a pet project for Learned. He is outspoken about ending the dependence of clerks of court on court fines and fees to fund their budgets. He wants to restructure the entire court fees payment system.
“When it comes to changing the funding model of the clerks, what better time than now?” he said in support of the Payments to Clerks of the Circuit Courts bill during a committee hearing last week. “Let’s do the hard thing. Putting the burden of funding our entire system of justice on the backs of those with the least ability to pay doesn’t make a heckuva lot of sense.”
Learned’s challenge was to get his bill, introduced Jan. 28, heard before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, chaired by Cord Byrd (R-Nassau/Duval).
VoxPopuli spoke with Rep. Learned via Zoom on Tuesday. Days after we talked, the subcommittee shut down for the legislative session without hearing Learned’s bill.
Norine Dworkin: I didn’t realize your bill hadn’t even gotten on the agenda.
Rep. Andrew Learned: I am saddened to say this, the Republicans won’t even give this bill a hearing at the moment. We’re still running into headwinds because the thought of even creating a group to look at a problem is too much for them in our current political climate. I’ve been really fighting hard for this bill. I’m still trying.
We fundamentally need to change how we do fines and fees long term. I’m a former Republican. My parents voted for Trump twice. I’m a product of conservative America. I always joke that that’s what’s made me liberal now or, at least, a Democrat. What I’m trying to create is a permission structure for people who don’t necessarily agree to say, “Maybe we should at least study this problem and come up with some clear, concise recommendations that we can maybe do next year.”
I’m at a loss if any reform is even remotely possible if the legislature won’t even engage in a conversation about it. Ultimately, what you’re getting from me is a sense of frustration. If you can’t even agree that we should probably study if we have a problem, then you’re definitely not going to agree about how we fix said problem.
ND: We can see what the problem is: low-income and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by court-related fines, fees and other costs because they are more likely to be pulled over by the police and more likely to be given citations when they’re stopped.
AL: I’ll be frank with you. I think you and I know there’s a problem and mutually agree there’s a problem, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true with all of my Republican colleagues. And what I think the council does is it strikes a balance. I’m not going to try to bite the whole apple at once with this bill. I’m not going to write the bill that fundamentally reforms our fines and fees structure and fixes systemic racism in our judicial system. But I can take an incremental step in solving the problem down the road. What I’m doing with this bill is giving my Republican colleagues an opportunity to start down a path that will one day lead to reform, but they don’t necessarily have to agree to the implications today.
AL: Because of the work they've done, it's importaant to have them on the council and make sure their voice is heard along with everyone else. It’s not just the lefty liberal organizations fighting for reform on there. Clerks of court are on there. Prosecutors are on there. Judges are on there. It’s important that everybody view this council as a nonpartisan group that’s looking for true justice. It’s not just reform-minded. It’s making sure the system works. Ultimately, I think that’s the balance we’re trying to strike with that council.
ND: Right. But we already know that Black people are 20 percent more likely to be stopped by police than white people, and are more likely to be ticketed when they are stopped. We also know that driver’s license suspensions are more prevalent in lower income areas and communities of color. So don’t you already know what a council like this is going to find?
AL: I genuinely don’t know what that council would come up with. That’s why we create the council, right? The problem is far too big for any one person to look at. I’ve been in the legislature four months. I’m not a lawyer. I got thrown into the world of the judiciary. I got a speeding ticket once. That was it. I paid it, and life went on for me. It becomes very complicated very quickly.
Right now, we’re funding our clerks off this business model of having to collect fines and fees, but we’re not allowing them to create savings accounts so they can have a rainy day fund. If we funded them differently, we could take the funding off the backs of poor people.
ND: Fines and Fees Justice Center has research to show that once a license is suspended, about 75 percent remain suspended two years later, so it’s not an effective collections technique, but it does harm people’s ability to work so they’re even less able to pay what they owe.
AL: Clerks get 5 percent more return in counties that do suspend licenses versus counties that don't. As a business owner, I read 5 percent more revenue on one very small line item of my overall budget, and that is not something that sends me quivering away. It’s not nonexistent. But if you heard [Tom Bexley, Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers] testimony [in the committee hearing on HB 557] it sounded like there was no reason anybody would ever pay a fine ever again because there would be no more threat of suspending licenses.
ND: Bexley looked nervous that he wasn’t going to be able to meet his budget because of Covid-19 and the economy.
AL: I would be shocked if that wasn’t the argument whether there was a pandemic or not. The fact that there’s a pandemic and their budget is hurt is the only reason we are entertaining conversations about how we can reform their funding model, which is allowing this conversation to happen at all. But this is the problem: they’re going to fight anything that touches their budget because they don’t have the faith that we’re going to back it up with the reform to the budget that fixes the underlying issue.
If I had two separate bills and one solves the problem that the other one creates, they won’t like that because they’re going to be opposed to one and neutral on the other. Well, if you packaged it all together and did fines and fees reform comprehensively along with a new payment model for clerks of court, even though everybody would be happy with that, how you get there is really challenging because no one is willing to give an inch on any of the things that affect their parts of the budget.
ND: And so the council would study how this could be done by looking at the 15 other states that currently collect court fines and fees without suspending driver's licenses, which disproportionately punishes poor people and people of color?
AL: Yes. There are Republicans that know this is an issue. I heard a Republican in leadership say that systemic racism was real and it was a problem, and it caught me because it’s not the way you normally hear them talk about this type of issue. What I’m getting at though is just because they recognize there’s an issue doesn’t mean they agree on the fix. By creating commissions to study problems in a nonpartisan way at least we have a template for what a version of the future could look like, which is ultimately good for our democracy.
ND: What comes next?
AL: The effort will continue.
[Correction: According to the Fees and Fines Justice Center, counties that don't suspend licenses collect 5 percent more than counties that do.]