As Florida weighs which ex-felons can vote, a financial roadblock remains

"We shouldn't have a system where if you have money, you're able to vote, and if you don't have money, you can't," one voter rights advocate said.
Midterm
Voters line up as the polls open at David Park Community Center in Hollywood, Florida, on Nov. 6, 2018.Susan Stocker / South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

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By Erik Ortiz

For Stanford Blake, who ruled in some of Florida's most prominent criminal cases as a Miami-Dade circuit judge, there was one constant no matter who came before him: the court fees.

And in his courtroom, defendants were on the hook for an average of $500 to $1,000.

"They keep the court operating," said Blake, who retired in 2016 after 22 years on the bench and has a mediation practice in Miami. "They can help fund the clerk's office or the drug court program and other things."

Such outstanding costs are now at the heart of bills in Florida's Legislature that would require former felons to pay off what they owe if they want their voting rights restored. A change in the state's constitution to return that right, known as Amendment 4, was approved by Florida voters in November and could benefit an estimated 1.5 million former felons — with the exception of murderers and felony sex offenders — who had completed their sentences, including parole or probation.

The issue has taken heightened importance in a state where elections have been won on razor-thin margins.

But questions remain whether the proposal by lawmakers to force the payment of court fees, as well as other fines and restitution costs associated with individual cases, would potentially block many former felons from going to the polls in upcoming elections.

WHAT'S NEXT WITH THE STATE LEGISLATURE?

The Republican-controlled House on Wednesday voted 71-45, along party lines, to approve its version of the bill. Democrats have argued that an added financial requirement undermines the spirit of Amendment 4, while Republicans say that fees should be considered in whether a former felon has fulfilled his or her sentence.

Now, the fight moves on to the Senate next week with its own bill expected to be taken up before this year's Legislative session ends Friday.

It's unclear if the Senate's bill will be amended, but its version differs in that it still requires any restitution costs to victims be paid off, but not any fees or fines if those have been converted by the court to a civil lien. (Such payments are treated like a judgment in a civil action, and could include having property taken or being subject to a debt collector.)

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That happens regularly, said Sean Morales-Doyle, a counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy institute.

The House's latest version also makes it clear that costs incurred during incarceration won't count toward what is owed; a judge or victim could agree that a felon's restitution cost be waived, although such permission is hard to come by; and that any confusion as to a former felon's eligibility to vote should generally fall in his or her favor.

Morales-Doyle added that the bills "seem to have momentum," but it's unclear whether the House or Senate version or some other compromise would be what lands on the governor's desk.

WHERE DOES THE GOVERNOR STAND?

Last year, newly-elected Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, tapped the brakes on rolling out Amendment 4 after almost two-thirds of Florida voters approved it. DeSantis said he wanted the Legislature to hash out "implementing language" that would need to be signed by him.

The governor's office did not immediately return a request for comment about his support for either the House or the Senate bill.

HOW MANY FORMER FELONS OWE MONEY?

An exact number is unclear, but experts say it could be substantial. Voter rights advocates point out that the bills are not only affecting those convicted in Florida and living in the state, but also former felons who moved to Florida from elsewhere.

Ultimately, the idea of tracking down the money owed by former felons, some of whom have cases dating back decades, could prove burdensome on local election officials tasked with making sure voter rolls are up to date, observers say.

"These fines and fees in Florida are out of control," said Ashley Thomas, the Florida state director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which wants fees eliminated in the justice system and fines to be equitably enforced. "Now they're impacting voting rights, which we consider sacred, and we shouldn't have a system where if you have money, you're able to vote, and if you don't have money, you can't."

HOW MUCH IS OWED IN COURT FEES?

Last year, the state's courts and jurisdictions assessed about $1.1 billion in fines and fees — including circuit and county criminal courts, as well as juvenile courts and civil traffic courts.

The data, provided by the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers and analyzed by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, found that across all of the state's circuit criminal courts, the collections rate for the year was only about 20 percent.

The individual amount someone owes is dependent on the jurisdiction, what type of crime was committed and if they needed a public defender, among other factors. For instance, in Alachua County in northern Florida, costs are broken down on a sheet to show a mandatory fee of $246, but there's also a slew of other costs, including $275 if a felony was committed and $155 if the felony was related to driving under the influence.

For most formerly incarcerated people, finding steady employment, much less one that offers a living wage, can be difficult — and impedes paying off fines and fees. A Harvard University researcher found that the median annual income was only about $6,500 for those newly out of prison.

WILL PEOPLE BE DISENFRANCHISED?

If the proposed legislation is signed into law, voter rights advocates worry that there could be former felons, who by no mistake of their own, try to vote without realizing they had outstanding fees.

The fear of arrest for incorrectly voting could dissuade people who may be able to vote — or turn people off if they think they owe money and can't pay, Thomas said.

"This whole process went from what many have said is the biggest expansion of democracy to what could have been the biggest expansion of democracy," she added, "but if not for the fines and fees."