Second chances are an integral part of the fabric of our nation. If we want to create and sustain communities that thrive, we need a criminal-justice system that not only encourages people who have broken the law to make amends, but also ensures they have an opportunity to lead productive lives with dignity when they reenter their community. As President George W. Bush observed: “When the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”
Rarely do individuals serve a life sentence, which means we must consider reentry – including restoration of voting rights – for individuals who return to our community after having paid their debt to society. Unfortunately, many individuals with prior convictions experience difficulty with obtaining education, jobs and housing, all due to the collateral consequences and stigma of conviction. These obstacles harm not just the individual, but our entire community.
The people of Florida took a historic step toward promoting second chances last November when almost two-thirds of the state’s electorate voted to approve Amendment 4 to the state Constitution. That amendment established an automatic process under which, “Voting rights shall be restored [for individuals with prior felony convictions] upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.” The will of voters was clear: Once released from custody and no longer on probation or parole, returning citizens should get a second chance to rebuild their lives and participate in our democracy.
Some in Tallahassee are seeking to undo the people’s will. Even as Florida businesses, congregations and other organizations pledge to break down barriers for those with criminal records, legislators are advancing proposals that would greatly restrict the number of people who would otherwise be eligible to vote under Amendment 4. They would disenfranchise individuals for years after they have served their sentence and are no longer on parole or probation, based solely on unpaid costs, fines or fees — many of which were never imposed by the judge or part of the sentencing order.
One of the measures would withhold the right to vote from returning citizens based on additional outstanding costs that have been levied by the Florida Department of Corrections and Commission on Offender Review for programs that those agencies impose, such as fees for community service and drug testing requirements. These financial obligations are not part of the sentencing; they are imposed after sentencing — sometimes long after.
One of the pending bills would even require people to pay financial penalties and costs converted to civil judgments after the sentence and supervision has ended and the criminal case is closed. These costs can run in the tens of thousands of dollars — amounts that people rebuilding their lives may never be able to pay.
If passed, these bills would create two classes of returning citizens: those who can afford to vote and those who can’t. They would resurrect for indigent Floridians the same lifetime disenfranchisement that Amendment 4 sought to end.
This is not what voters intended.
Conditioning the right to vote on ability to pay is also illegal. The Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that people cannot be punished for poverty. Federal courts recently applied that principle in striking down suspension of driver’s licenses resulting from unpaid court debt.
Every individual is also entitled to due process. These ill-conceived proposals erode this foundational right. There is no centralized system that tracks fines, fees and restitution levied in Florida. This information resides with Florida’s 67 county courts, each of which has its own record-keeping practices, meaning restoration of voting rights may vary significantly based on the county in which a sentence was imposed. And people may not even know how to find out what they owe.
Voting rights are key to successful reintegration for those who have completed their prison time and supervision and, as such, can serve to promote public safety. As reflected in the 2017 Fall Term Interim Report of the Miami-Dade County Grand Jury, the Parole Commission compared recidivism rates of former prison inmates who had their rights restored to other prison inmates whose rights were not restored. For those whose rights were restored, the recidivism rate dropped from 33 percent to 11 percent.
Prosecutors understand that rights restoration is critical to giving people a second chance. That is why we support voting rights restoration for people who have completed their sentence and any post-incarceration supervision.
This April — Second Chance Month — we urge Florida’s leaders to make it easier, not harder, for people to return as contributing members of the community.
Katherine Fernandez Rundle is the State’s Attorney for Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit (Miami-Dade County); Andrew Warren is the State’s Attorney for Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit (Hillsborough County); Miriam Aroni Krinsky spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor and is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution.