Naked Politics

Felons unable to pay fines, fees can vote in Miami under this first-of-its-kind plan

Former felons blocked from participating in Florida elections due to unpaid fines and fees owed as part of their sentencing may be able to vote soon in Miami under a plan announced Monday by the county’s top prosecutor, public defender and clerk of courts.

The plan, created in response to a controversial new law overseeing the restoration of voting rights in Florida, establishes a fast track by which judges can set aside some financial penalties that would otherwise prohibit an ex-felon from participating in elections.

An estimated 150,000 former felons in Miami-Dade will be able to apply.

Not everyone with a felony conviction will be eligible: No one who owes restitution required as part of their sentence can be considered, nor can anyone convicted outside of Miami-Dade County. Felons charged with murder or sex offenses can restore their voting rights only by petitioning Florida’s Board of Executive Clemency.

But the creation of a “rocket docket” to speed voter restoration cases through the court system — a concept also under consideration in other parts of Florida, including Broward and Palm Beach counties — could prevent a lack of money from becoming a roadblock to voting, and help former felons navigate the courts.

“Make no mistake, this will be rolled out in every judicial district in Florida,” said Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which pushed a successful constitutional amendment in November to restore voting rights to former felons in Florida.

Meade, who attended a Monday press conference called by Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, has been working with Rundle, Public Defender Carlos Martinez, Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin and local lawmakers since early June, after it became clear that Gov. Ron DeSantis would sign into law a bill setting up the process for restoring felons’ right to vote under Amendment 4. The legislation, pushed by Republicans, made clear that felons can’t restore their voting rights if fines, fees and restitution payments included in a sentence remain outstanding.

Critics of the legislation — including U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a Democratic presidential candidate — have called it a “poll tax” and accused Republicans of trying to suppress the vote in a crucial battleground state ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the state July 1 on behalf of several former felons ruled ineligible by the law.

But the law, which Meade says he helped tweak, included language that allows judges to “modify” a sentence by converting fines to community service hours or stipulating that some financial penalties won’t prevent a convicted felon from registering to vote.

So, in response, Rundle and other Miami politicians have been working for weeks to come up with a plan that they hope will allow former felons to petition a judge for leniency without overburdening the courts and imposing onerous lawyers’ fees on ex-felons.

After analyzing the new law, they believe judges can modify a sentence so that the resolution of some fines and fees won’t remain a precondition to the restoration of voting rights.

Under the process, anyone seeking to set aside financial penalties can file a motion asking the court to modify their sentence. For anyone not on a payment plan, the motion must include details of their finances and an explanation of why they haven’t paid their fines.

The state attorney’s office will review the request to determine whether fines or restitution were included in the original sentence. The clerk of courts will determine whether an applicant is on a payment plan and how much remains outstanding. The public defender’s office will help gather information for any of their former clients, or help find pro bono attorneys for those who weren’t.

Any convicted felon hoping to modify their sentence can seek the court’s permission without going through the new “rocket docket” process. And some former felons who go through the new process will still need a full hearing, with their debts possibly converted to community service hours.

But with three judges assigned to handle the load, and with the flexibility in some cases to avoid hearings, Miami-Dade officials hope to assist applicants and quicken a process that could potentially include more than 100,000 cases.

“The burden would have been enormous had we not come up with a plan,” said Martinez.

It isn’t yet clear how much debt — much of it in collections — would be potentially set aside. In Miami-Dade, more than $278 million in court fines from felony cases remain outstanding since 2000, according to Miami Herald news partner WLRN News. Add in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and the total surpasses $1 billion, according to the Sun Sentinel.

“Court fines should not get in the way of voting,” Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, who met Friday with Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter to discuss voting rights restoration efforts, said in a statement issued by his office. “We are working on a final proposal to get this done in the best and simplest way. We expect to have a finalized plan in the next few weeks.”

For now, the counties are acting on their own.

Jason Pizzo, a Democratic state senator and attorney from North Miami Beach who helped coordinate the plan, said he reached out to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody in April to discuss the concept. He said he was recently told that she couldn’t talk about it due to the ACLU lawsuit filed this month.

But in an interview, Meade, of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said the process has been worked out with careful consideration of the new law. He said the legislation is clear that a judge can’t waive fines and fees, but can carve them out so that they don’t affect the right to vote.

“It’s written in very plain language,” Meade said. “When the language says the court may modify a sentence to remove the financial obligation, what is there to interpret?”