Criminal justice reform not possible if Florida Constitutional Amendment 5 passes, Florida Policy Institute warns

A proposed Florida Constitutional Amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot could increase Florida’s dependence on paying for the criminal justice system by charging more court fees to people accused of a crime – many who struggle to pay anyway, groups that work with the poor say.

State Constitutional Amendment 5 would make it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes or fees. Which sounds simple.

But analysts with the nonpartisan Florida Policy Institute and groups which represent the poor say Amendment 5 would make it nearly impossible to achieve any sort of criminal justice reform.

“Court fees and fines disproportionately impact low-income communities and keep people locked up solely because they don’t have the ability to pay. By destabilizing those already struggling to make ends meet, these policies make our communities less safe,” said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “There are better ways to raise revenue to fund important programs like public education and disaster relief than on the backs of the poor. Amendment 5, however, would tie the hands of our state legislature, making it more difficult to increase revenue.”

In 2016, the total revenue from state courts was about $772 million, data from the Florida Policy Institute shows, and $731.6 million came from fines, fees, costs and restitutions.

“We have this system where the state already relies so heavily on the criminal justice system’s fines and fees,” said Sadaf Knight, interim co-executive director of the Florida Policy Institute.

If the Legislature can’t come to a supermajority agreement on raising taxes, the court system won’t get additional state money and won’t have any choice but to fund itself through fines and fees, Knight said.

“When they (the courts) enact these fees – they’re increasingly not taking into account a defendant’s ability to pay,” she said.

CD Davidson-Hiers
CD Davidson-Hiers is a 2017 summa cum laude graduate of Florida State University with a degree in Creative Writing and French. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Golden Key honors societies, and has received multiple writing awards for fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Prior to joining the Florida Phoenix, CD worked at the Tallahassee Democrat and has bylines in Tallahassee Magazine. She is a native of Pensacola and currently lives in Tallahassee with her tabby cat, Faulkner.

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