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‘Cash register justice’ for the poor means no justice for many in Florida courtsNovember 16, 2015
By: Jack Strickland
By Jack Strickland
Cash register justice is flourishing in Florida. These days, In criminal courts in the Sunshine State, you can get the amount of justice you can afford to buy.
Defendants with money can expect to get more favorable treatment in court, and shorter jail sentences, than those who who are broke and unable to pay, when they come before the courts.
Rex Dimmig, the Public Defender for Florida’s 10th judicial circuit, protested the practice last week. He said people he represents are given a choice: Pay hundreds of dollars to the court to help fund the prosecutor’s office and get a favorable plea bargain, or go to trial and risk a longer prison sentence and/or harsher punishment. Dimmig claims this practice creates unequal justice under the law for the poor people who come before a judge. He says the practice violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law.
In an interview with the Associated Press Dimmig said, “My office represents indigent people, and they ought to be entitled to the same punishment for the same offenses as someone who has money. If they can’t pay . . . they are unable to get the same deal. This violates the principle of equal protection.”
State Attorney Jerry Hill defends the practice. He is the elected state attorney for the counties of Polk, Highlands, and Hardee which make up Florida’s 10th judicial circuit in central Florida. He told the AP his office depends on the fees defendants are required to pay to run his office. He acknowledged the prosecutor considers a defendant’s financial status when prosecuting a case. If the defendant can not afford to pay the fees he does not get a plea deal.
Hill stated, “Nobody is being forced to pay the cost of prosecution. They can always say ‘no.’ They are welcome to go to trial.”
Public Defender Dimmig presented a specific case on his work load he said illustrates the problem: This client was arrested and charged with driving with a suspended license, a third degree felony. In a plea bargain negotiation, State Attorney Hill’s office offered to reduce the charge to a second degree misdemeanor with no jail time or felony conviction, or any other penalty, for a fee/fine of $1,000.
If the defendant did not have a thousand dollars he would be required to take his case to trial where he would likely be found guilty of the felony and could be sentenced to the state penitentiary for up to five years. The felony conviction would cause him to lose the right to vote, disqualify him from holding some jobs, he would lose the right to possess firearms, and he would face a host of other disqualifications.
Prosecutor Hill said this is a good case for a plea bargain negotiation because it is a nonviolent felony. He said the defendant is not being pressured. He has a choice. He can pay up or take his chances before a judge and/or jury. He acknowledged that the practice was once considered “perfectly taboo.” He said it became necessary because the state legislature does not fully fund his office.
The Brennan Center for Justice has faulted the Florida courts for being overly dependent on fees from defendants. The highly respected center has warned that raising funds in such a way may cause miscarriages of justice. The Brennan Center is located on the campus of New York University and is held in high esteem nationally. It is named in honor of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennen, who was known for his integrity as h served on the high court for 34 years. The center claims its mission is to advocate for “the twin American ideals of democracy of and equal justice for all.”
In Florida “cash register justice” is not limited to court fees and fines. Prisons and jails are big business. Inmates are frequently charged fees for things like rent for their jail cell, medical care, use the jail telephone, and are charged inflated prices on commissary items purchased to supplement the jail house food served on the mess hall main line.
Indigent prisoners say their families are broke, too. They say many of them resort to criminal activities to raise money to pay court fees and to fill the needs of their imprisoned family members or loved ones. Court programs administered under the “cash register” justice system seem to be counter-productive. Instead of being a deterrent to crime they seem to be the cause of criminal activities.
State Attorney Jerry Hill asked, “Is it good or bad? One can draw their own conclusions. But that’s the reality of 2015.”
Public Defender Dimmig has vowed to work to get the Florida legislature to change the laws that legalize the practice.