Florida leads nation in disenfranchising former felons
Florida lawmakers say they’ve settled on a way to implement Amendment 4 that requires felons to pay all court fees, fines and restitution before voting, but allows judges to waive those costs or convert them into community service hours.
The agreement between the House and Senate, reached Thursday night and near the end of Florida’s legislative session, provides an unclear path for felons with financial obligations to vote.
But the bill could prevent tens of thousands of felons — or more — from voting while creating an unequal system across the state for restoring their voting rights.
The deal will go to a vote on Friday, the last full day of the legislative session.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, outlined the deal on Thursday, and said it had the support of Republicans in the House, who have taken a stricter stance on the historic constitutional amendment that passed last year after 5.2 million voters supported it.
What Brandes described would provide three paths for felons to overcome any fines, fees and restitution they owe and be allowed to vote:
1) They could simply pay them all off.
2) They could have a judge dismiss them outright, if the victim approves it.
3) They could have a judge convert their fines, fees and restitution into community service hours, and the felon could complete all of those hours.
How someone would go about asking a judge to waive the costs is unclear. Brandes said the ideas were born out of discussions over the weekend with judges around the state, but he expects each circuit court to come up with its own processes for felons to petition a judge.
Brandes acknowledged that felons could see different results depending on the judge or circuit court that hears their case.
Judges can already waive fees and fines but only within 60 days of a sentence. The bill allows judges to waive costs at any time, and Brandes said he envisions courts would have “reinstatement days” where they could review many cases on the same day.
But the idea was criticized by former Miami-Dade circuit court judge Stanford Blake, who called the Legislature’s attempts to implement Amendment 4 a “fiasco.”
Should the state give judges broader discretion to alter sentences, Blake wondered if that might put a strain on the courts.
“If you have potentially 1.5 million people [seeking changes to their sentence], is that going to create such a backlog that each court would have to designate a judge to hear all the applications for a waiver?” Blake said. “And is that really the intent of Amendment 4 being carried?”
In November, nearly 65 percent of voters approved Amendment 4, which was supposed to restore the right to vote to more than a million felons.
It overturned a 150-year-old racist policy created after the Civil War to prevent black Floridians from voting. By 2016, more than 1 in 5 black Floridians couldn’t vote because of the rule, according to the Washington Post.
The amendment restored the right to vote to felons who completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”
The amendment made no mention of court fees, fines or restitution.
But Republican lawmakers, who control the Legislature, took a narrow interpretation of the amendment.
They pointed to testimony by the creators of Amendment 4 before the Florida Supreme Court and language on one of the organization’s websites to say that “all terms of their sentence” includes court fees, fines and restitution to victims.
Because many felons can’t immediately afford to pay such obligations, that interpretation would prevent some felons from voting for years — or for life. One woman said she owed $59 million in restitution, which she said she pays money toward each month.
Most financial obligations are converted to civil liens. And Brandes, who said he supported Amendment 4, crafted a version of the bill that would allow felons to vote if their fees and fines were converted to civil liens. They would have still had to pay back restitution.
Some supporters of Amendment 4 eventually supported Brandes’ bill. But in the Florida House, lawmakers took a more hard-line stance, and it led national figures to shame lawmakers for creating what they called a “poll tax.”
And Republicans in both chambers wanted to pass a bill. What Brandes introduced is a compromise with his colleagues in the House, he said.
“This is a place where we both feel comfortable we can land,” Brandes said.
He later added, “Obviously you know my heart is in a different place.”
Democrats vehemently disagreed with the bill, pleading with their Republican colleagues to adopt a bill that would allow more people, not fewer, to vote.
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said the Legislature wasn’t required to make the amendment more restrictive.
“We can do more,” he said. “The goal is for someone to become better. No one is asking them not to do their time, to not pay their restitution, to not pay their fines.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.