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Debate About Voting Rights Now Centers On Fines, Fees

Mar 25, 2019
Originally published on March 25, 2019 4:55 pm

Felons in Florida would have to settle pending fines and fees before having their voting rights restored, according to a proposal currently making its way through the legislature. Critics say that flies directly in the face of Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment passed in November, and amounts to a modern day “poll tax.”

The bill has ignited a debate about what it means to “complete a sentence” in Florida, and it’s put a spotlight on the unique way the state uses fines and fees as revenue to fund the court system.

WLRN reporter Danny Rivero said Friday on The Florida Roundup that questions around the implementation of the Florida Voter Restoration Rights amendment could ultimately be decided in the courts, potentially setting the stage for a rethinking of the state’s criminal justice system.

“This might be actually a starting point," Rivero said, "a way for criminal justice advocates to tackle the entire system rather than the end result that a lot of people thought it would be."

In November, over 64 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to more than 1.4 million former felons in Florida after they have fulfilled their sentence. It was widely characterized as the most substantial expansion of voting rights in the country in over 50 years.

Neil Volz, the political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and a former felon, said the amendment was intended to be self executing, allowing returned citizens to register to vote “automatically” beginning in January.

“This was not about partisanship, this was not about division, this was about a unity and a belief that when your debt is paid, it’s paid,” he said.

But lawmakers quickly took up the issue of how to set guidelines around what it means to complete “all terms of a sentence.”

On Tuesday, the Florida House of Representatives’ Criminal Justice Subcommittee passed a bill that says a sentence isn't complete until a felon has paid all associated court costs, fines and fees. That includes costs set at the time of sentencing and those incurred later, such as during a jail term.

That would have a huge impact on potential new voters, many of whom cannot afford to pay. As Rivero reported in January, the pending fines and fees would amount to some hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the state level, some crimes come with specific fines explicitly attached to the sentence for a crime. In others, fines are tacked on as “orders” from the court.

Fees, on the other hand, are charges for accessing the criminal justice system. Often times, they come after sentencing.

Florida has over 115 different types of fees and surcharges, the second highest number in the country. Florida's county and circuit court system is funded entirely by fines and fees, thanks to a 1998 Constitutional Amendment that changed the funding structure.

Since then, the Florida legislature has created “more than 20 new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants,” according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.

But the state knows the “vast majority of these fines are never gonna be paid back,” Rivero said, because it knows defendants are unable to pay.

According to Rivero’s reporting: Across the state "over $1 billion in felony fines were issued between 2013 and 2018 alone, according to annual reports from the Florida Clerks and Comptrollers, a statewide association. Over that five year period, an average of only 19 percent of that money was paid back per year."

“We could end up trying to spend millions and millions of dollars to track down every piece of paper from somebody who had a conviction 40 yrs ago if we’re not careful,” Volz said. “And I don’t know if that’s good stewardship of our tax dollars to go into every instance in every locality.”

These costs were previously not attached to the right to vote. The Florida Commission on Offender Review has never taken into consideration court costs, fees or fines when considering applications for clemency.

“You can get off probation if you’re still owing some fines and fees in some places,” Rivero said. “Some of those can be transferred into a civil judgment.”

Thus, the proposed bill “would restrict and take a step in the wrong direction, meaning less people can vote than what the current standard is,” Volz said.

As civil rights attorneys across the country analyze the legislation, Volz said Friday this is an issue of “people not politics.”

“This is not a political science exercise for those of us who are impacted by this legislation and these policies,” Volz said. “We are actively engaged to help bridge the gap between this being a discussion about the law and the application of it in our real lives with our families and our neighbors,” he said.

He added that both parties are facing a huge new pool of voters that are closely observing legislators' next move.

“We’re beginning to see a situation in which there are some folks who’ve decided to step up and throw roadblocks in the way of people accessing the voting booth,” he said.

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