“I did a thing today!” My friend shouted on the other end of the phone. I said, “mmm hmm,” signaling her to tell me more. She continued. “Coming out of Publix, I signed a ballot petition that would change Florida’s constitution and make a way for people with certain felony records to have the right to vote.” She went on to recall almost every word from the spiel the volunteer had recited to her. “Whew! Like who knew this was a thing? I’m glad I could contribute to this possible change.” She wasn’t the only one who was excited: many Floridians welcomed that opportunity to initiate real change.
More than 60 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, a ballot initiative that modified the state’s constitution and restored the right to vote to those with past felony convictions, except for murder and felony sexual offenses. While this victory was lauded nationally, the climate shifted as the Florida Legislature introduced an implementation bill for Amendment 4. The measure added stipulations that effectively nullified the rights restoration for many Floridians, and disproportionately affected people of color with past felony convictions.
Criminal fines have been used historically, and are presently being used, to oppress Black Floridians. The implementing legislation for Amendment 4, enacted in 2019, requires that all court fines, fees, and restitution be paid in order to restore the right to vote. For many directly-impacted people who served their prison sentences and were eager to finally participate in elections, the requirement to pay fines and fees was an unexpected set-back. Many people were not aware of how much they owed in court fines and fees, and others who owed a massive amount knew that they did not have the means to complete the total payment in years or even over their entire lifetime. They would have to either pay or continue to be deprived of their voting rights. The implementation bill for Amendment 4 highlights the various roles that criminal fines and fees have played in limiting or denying Black Floridians of certain rights in post-colonial Florida. Moreover, it reverberates a remnant of Florida’s past use of deploying criminal fines and fees as an instrument to safeguard attributes of slavery and trap Black people without the means to pay to a life of subjugation.
Echoes of the Past
In the aftermath of the Civil War and the fall of the Confederacy came passage of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished the institution of slavery. In 1865, Florida, along with several Southern state legislatures comprised of “former slaveholders and ex-confederates,” passed a set of measures that were designed to govern Black people within the context of their newly-given freedom and rights. These were known as the Black Codes. Florida was particularly hostile in accepting emancipation, the new political and social normal. State lawmakers believed that Black Floridians were biologically inferior and predisposed to crime. Reflecting on the enactment of the Black Codes, the assistant commissioner of the federal Freedmen’s Bureau — an agency created by Congress to assist former slaves with basic necessities such as food, housing, and schooling — described Florida’s Legislature as opposed to the “equal or semi-equal rights of freedmen.” An illustration of the Black Codes was Florida’s vagrancy law, which allowed for the arrest of those who were able-bodied, unemployed and without “visible means of living,”or those “leading an idle, immoral or profligate course of life.”
By making it easy for Black people to be labeled as criminals and imposing a fine that they surely could not pay, Florida’s lawmakers crafted the perfect formula to exploit Black bodies, protect their dominating economic interests, and keep the legacy of slavery alive.
The Black Codes created a system wherein being Black and poor was easily criminalized — one of the accompanying punishments was a state-imposed fine of up to $1,000. For Black people who had spent their lives providing forced and free labor, this criminal fee, which is more than $29,000 in today’s dollars, was almost always a gateway back to the life they had just been liberated from. Florida’s law authorized the sale of Black people who could not pay at public auctions to the highest bidder who could absorb their debt. They were sentenced to months of free labor to their purchasers. By making it easy for Black people to be labeled as criminals and imposing a fine that they surely could not pay, Florida’s lawmakers crafted the perfect formula to exploit Black bodies, protect their dominating economic interests, and keep the legacy of slavery alive.
During the Black Codes era, Black people carried the brunt of criminal fines. Compared to white Floridians, Black Floridians were ordered to pay larger fines for offenses that were less severe. In Lake City, two Black men were convicted of theft, having stolen two boxes of goods from a railroad company. They received a $500 fine. Unable to pay, the men were sold and sentenced to free labor. Whereas a white man who was convicted of the unprovoked murder of a Black person was fined $225 and sentenced to 60 seconds of imprisonment. Residues of the adverse effects of criminal fines and fees still exist today. A visible case of that is Florida’s practice of driver’s license suspension for unpaid fines and fees.
The inability to pay fines and fees is the leading cause of driver’s license suspension in this state, and Black Floridians are amongst the most affected. When someone fails to pay for a traffic citation, like running a red light, within the given time, the state issues a 30 day notice. Failure to abide with this timeframe results in a suspension. To compound the effects of license suspension, their debt can be forwarded to private collections agencies, which are allowed to add surcharges of up to 40 percent of the amount owed. A license suspended as a result of unpaid fines and fees can often be the onset of a series of financial difficulties, such as the loss of employment and a tainted credit score. This practice has harmed many Black Floridians.
Residues of the adverse effects of criminal fines and fees still exist today. A visible case of that is Florida’s practice of driver’s license suspension for unpaid fines and fees.
Although in the present context, driver’s license suspension for unpaid court debt and policies around voting rights restoration for the formerly incarcerated were not intentionally created to target Black Floridians like they were during the Black code era, they still carry similar disproportionate consequences for Black Floridians. Florida’s lawmakers, over the centuries, have meted out criminal fines as a “not yet” mechanism to strategically subvert systemic changes. When slavery was abolished and lawmakers were not yet willing to acknowledge and accept the rights of Black Floridians, criminal fines offered them a legal way to say “not yet,” to the full citizenship status of Black Floridians. In 2019, Florida lawmakers again said “not yet” to 1.4 million Floridians, whom were predominantly Black, when they legislated that complete payment of fines and fees is a requirement for voting rights restoration. Criminal fines and fees remain harmful to Black Floridians at every turn of the state’s history and present.