Driving for just 15 minutes on U.S. 27, I passed about 30 cars committing the same crime.
Can you guess the crime?
About 10 percent of the cars and trucks on Florida’s roads are driven by someone with a suspended driver’s license. As of October 2019, there were 10,095 drivers in Highlands County with a suspended driver’s license. Lake County had 25,134 drivers on their roads with a suspended license, while Polk County had 63,432 drivers with a suspended driver’s license.
What caused this crazy situation, where 10 percent of the people behind the wheel in Florida are committing the same crime?
A little background is in order to understand how this crime wave was created.
Florida intentionally chose to shift the state and local tax burden onto the shoulders of the lowest wage earners in order to make it more attractive for retirees to move here.
The bottom 20 percent, those making less than $18,700 a year, pay 12.7 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The top 1 percent of income earners in Florida pay only 2.3 percent of their income in state and local taxes.
One method Florida uses to heap the cost of government disproportionately on lower-income working families is how we fund our court systems. Florida citizens in 1998 voted to fund its court system with fines and court fees.
“Hey, why not?” you might be thinking. “Let the hooligans pay for the costs of our court system. Why should we law-abiding folks have to pay a nickel of our hard-earned money to support the courts?”
There is some logic to that argument, except that the fines fall most heavily on our poor and working poor. They are the least likely to have a couple hundred bucks to pay a fine. That’s why 72 percent of all the suspended licenses in Florida are because of a failure to pay fines and court fees.
In 1996, to make it easier to fund the courts, Florida added another 20 fees and mostly eliminated exemptions for those who could not pay.
In Glades County, approximately half the driving population is driving with a suspended license. In relatively prosperous Orange County, 15 percent of all drivers are operating with a suspended license.
If you are poor and you have a suspended driver’s license, how are you supposed to get to work to pay off the fines and get your license reinstated?
Maybe ride the subway system in Polk to work? Maybe ride the light-rail system in Lake? Or ride the comprehensive public bus system in Highlands?
We created a debtors’ financial prison which the poor cannot get out of, and must become lawbreakers instead. A large portion of the working poor are never able to have their license reinstated.
The far left and the far right agree — Florida’s system is broken. When Koch Industries, The American Legislative Exchange Council, The Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberates Union all agree, the decision to fix this crime wave should be easy.
Change the Florida constitution so that court costs are paid out of more general taxes. It’s time for at least one crime wave to end.
Share your thoughts.
David Dunn-Rankin is CEO of D-R Media, which owns the Winter Haven Sun, Four Corners News-Sun and Polk News-Sun and Polk News-Sun in Polk County, as well as newspapers in Highlands, Lake and Sumter counties. He can be reached at David@d-r.media.