News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Courts / Law

Public Defender Explains Financial Struggles For Felons In Day Two Of Felon Voting Rights Trial

Man in orange 'inmate' vest and hard hat holds a stop sign on the side of the road.
Jana Lumley / Adobe Stock
An inmate in a work crew stands on the side of a road. Tuesday was the second day of a federal trial over a 2018 Florida law requiring felons to pay off their fines and penalties.

The federal trial over a 2018 Florida law requiring felons to pay off their fines and penalties is underway. Plaintiffs argued Tuesday about how difficult that can be.

"I say if you’re not poor coming in, you’re certainly poor going out," said Carey Haughwout, a public defender for Palm Beach County.

Haughwout said about 80% of all criminal trials are done with lawyers like her who are appointed by courts to defend people who cannot afford their own attorney.

Haughwout says by the time defendants get to the appeals process, that number goes up to 98%.

And she says once behind bars, their chance of earning any money is slim.

"The only paying job while in prison are through Pride Enterprises," Haughwout said. "And the last client I had that was able to get a job at Pride Industries while incarcerated was paid $1.20 an hour."

Haughwout said once people are released from prison, finding a job is even harder with a felony. She said 60 to 75 percent of felons are in need of housing and either end up homeless or staying on someone’s couch.

Payment of such “legal financial obligations,” a requisite for felons to regain the right to vote under a state law passed last year, is the crux of the closely watched trial that could have a significant impact on Florida’s presidential election in November.

The Republican-controlled Legislature included the requirement that court-ordered financial obligations be paid in a law aimed at implementing a 2018 constitutional amendment designed to restore voting rights to felons who have completed the terms of their sentences.

Voting-rights groups representing felons in the lawsuit allege that linking finances and voting rights amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax,” while lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration insist that last year’s law carries out the words and intent of the constitutional amendment.

About 80 percent of defendants charged with felonies in Palm Beach County are indigent, said Haughwout, president of the Florida Public Defender Association. In Miami-Dade County, approximately 75 percent of felony defendants are deemed indigent by the court, according to the county’s public defender, Carlos Martinez.

State and local laws include dozens of fees that can be charged to defendants and included in their sentencing orders, along with restitution and applicable fines, Haughwout said. The charges vary from one county to another throughout the state.

In Palm Beach County, the minimum amount assessed to people who are represented by public defenders and are convicted of felonies is $668, according to Haughwout. An extra $88 is tacked on for each additional felony count.

Costs in the county can include a $50 application fee for court-appointed counsel, $100 for prosecution and $20 for the Crime Stoppers trust fund, along with fees for the “crimes compensation trust fund,” the “additional court cost clearing trust fund,” and teen court, Haughwout said.

“There’s just a variety of costs,” she said. “It seems that every other year or two there’s some additional $2 cost, or $3 cost, or $100 cost that have been added to these costs, over the years.”

About 90 percent of felons in Palm Beach County end up on payment plans with the court following their convictions, Haughwout said. The payments range from $20 to $50 per month, she said.

“They’re simply unable to pay a lump sum amount, understanding that lumped in there can be restitution and some other costs as well,” the public defender said.