Lawmakers Want To Stop Cash Register Justice System

Jan 31, 2020

Credit Evlakhov Valeriy / Adobe Stock

More than 97% of criminal cases in the U.S. are resolved through plea deals. But sometimes those offers are better for defendants who have more money. Lawmakers say that’s not fair and are trying to fix it.

Florida law requires courts to charge for the cost of prosecution for each case. Usually that covers investigative costs, expert witness fees and time spent preparing for and participating in trial. The amounts are set at no less than $50 for a misdemeanor or $100 for a felony. But there is no maximum amount a court can charge. Legislative Consultant for the Public Defender Association, Nancy Daniels, says some courts take advantage of that.

"What happened in the past in a couple of circuits around the state is that state attorneys got into a practice of offering a better plea to people if they would pay more cost of prosecution," explained Daniels.

Daniels says they wouldn’t be shy about it either.

“They’d say, 'we’ll give you three days less in jail if you give us $200 in cost of prosecution instead of the $100 for a felony,' or that type of variation on the theme," explained Daniels.

Daniels thinks that’s wrong.

"That shouldn’t be part of the plea negotiation. The plea negotiation should be based on that person’s case, that persons’ prior record. Not their bank account," said Daniels.

A bipartisan team is trying to fix the problem. Rep. Ramon Alexander (D-Tallahassee) and Sen. David Simmons (R-Longwood) want to cap how much can be charged for cost of prosecution. The caps would be set at the current minimums. If the cost of prosecution is higher, a court can approve an increase. The money goes toward the State Attorneys Revenue Trust Fund. Daniels says it’s used to fund office operations and even salaries.

“When you have it you can spend it for your offices benefit. So there’s kind of a natural incentive to keep that fund as healthy as possible," explained Daniels.

But Tampa Republican Representative Jamie Grant says revenue isn’t the topic at hand.

"I think it is important members that we separate two separate issues," began Grant. "There’s the economics of making sure that our state attorneys have reimbursement for the cost of prosecution and that that is accurate and it reflects the expenses and the cost of prosecution. There’s a fundamentally different question if a single state attorney or assistant state attorney in the state of florida is making contingent a plea deal on somebody willing to accept an amount of money. That is nothing more and nothing less than extortion and bribery with a badge."

Some state attorneys say the bill isn’t needed. They argue the practice of offering better plea deals to richer people, is no longer common. But Grant says it still needs to be fixed in the law books.

"Perhaps it’s not happening today. I do believe we can get to a place where we ensure it won’t happen in the future again. Because I don’t know how to describe that other than corruption if it’s happening. And simultaneously make sure we haven’t knee capped state attorneys in recovering the actual cost of prosecution," said Grant.

The bill has two committees left to go in both chambers.