TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Felons would have to clear up any financial obligations, including court costs, fees and fines, before having their voting rights restored, under a House proposal castigated by critics Tuesday as a modern take on Jim Crow-era poll taxes designed to keep black voters from participating in elections.
In a strict party-line vote following heated testimony, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee signed off on the measure aimed at clarifying parts of a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November.
The amendment, which appeared on the ballot as Amendment 4, granted “automatic” restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
While some proponents maintain the measure does not require any legislative action, state and local elections officials, clerks of courts, prosecutors and others have asked the Legislature for guidance in interpreting what specific crimes qualify as exceptions and what is required for felons to have completed their sentences.
Under the House plan, felons convicted of first- or second-degree murder or about three dozen sex-related crimes, including cyberstalking, would be excluded from the automatic restoration of rights.
But an even-more controversial part of the House bill (PCB CRJ 19-03) dealing with felons’ financial obligations drew rebukes from civil rights advocates, Democrats and others who claim the plan disenfranchises voters.
“It’s a non-starter for me,” Rep. Michael Grieco, a Miami Beach Democrat who is a lawyer, said, adding he believes “there are efforts being made to purposely misinterpret” the Constitution.
“An overwhelming” number of states deal with restoration of voting rights “with no problem, but we seem to be fumbling around with a basic issue,” Grieco said.
Under the House plan approved by a 10-6 vote, felons would have to pay off all restitution, court fines and fees, including those that have been continued through civil judgments, such as liens. “Returning citizens,” the term used by backers of the constitutional amendment, would also have to pay “any cost of supervision.”
And before inmates are released, the proposal would require the Department of Corrections or county jail staff members to provide “an accounting of all outstanding financial obligations imposed by a court, the department, or the Florida Commission on Offender Review” for each felony conviction.
House Criminal Justice Chairman James Grant, R-Tampa, defended the legislation, saying it follows the language in the amendment.
“When a petition process leads to a constitutional amendment, we as legislators do not have the luxury, the latitude or the freedom to play the ‘what if’ game, to play the ‘edit the language’ game,” Grant, a lawyer, said.
But Neil Volz, political director of a committee that backed the amendment, said the Florida Commission on \Offender Review currently does not take into consideration court costs, fees or fines when considering applications for clemency.
“It does not include costs outside of what the sentence was given by the judge,” Volz told the panel.
The House proposal would “move the line” of what completion of sentence means and “will restrict the ability to vote for thousands of Floridians, especially people who are poor, especially people of color,” he argued.
Kara Gross, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, argued that the bill is “contrary to the voters’ will” expressed in the amendment because it “maintains lifetime disenfranchisement for non-violent, relatively low-level offenses.”
But, saying the amendment’s own lawyer told the Florida Supreme Court that court costs and fees could be considered as part of sentences, an angry Grant riffed on one opponent’s use of the words “near arrogance” to describe the House’s stance on financial obligations.
“Near arrogance is ignoring testimony in front of the Supreme Court and pretending it doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Near arrogance is suggesting this is a poll tax,” which “inherently diminishes … what a poll tax actually was,” Grant added.
“To compare that to this is a slap in the face to every single person who was a free citizen told it would cost a dollar or more to vote. All we’re doing is following statute. All we’re doing is following the testimony that (was) presented before the Florida Supreme Court explicitly acknowledging that fines and court costs are part of a sentence,” he said.
Dave Ramba, a lobbyist who represents the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, praised the Legislature for providing clear direction to county officials, who work at the level “where the rubber hits the road.”
The definitions in the measure “are extremely helpful,” Ramba said.
“The bill specifies what offenses are included, and that was really our main goal,” he added. “Having something in law will allow us to be able to register the right folks.”
Supporters of Amendment 4, including the ACLU, pushed the constitutional amendment as an alternative to the state’s lengthy restoration of rights process, which spurred years of political and legal disputes.
Shortly after he took office in 2011, former Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet put in place a process that made it harder for felons to get rights, including the right to vote, restored. Under the process, the state required felons to wait five or seven years to apply for rights restoration --- and years after that to complete the process.
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, acknowledged that “there’s a lack of trust” in how the Legislature is going to implement the amendment.
“Let’s be clear. … The clemency process as it existed in the state of Florida has been a joke,” said Donalds, who is black.
But, he added, the state needs to interpret the amendment in a uniform way.
“We want to make sure that the next election … that our state operates on the same wavelength in all 67 counties. That is what we should be striving for. None of us want to be on CNN talking about, ‘Oh man look, at what they did in Florida. Again,’ ” Donalds said.