The focus of today’s blog is on recent legislation signed by Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis that was introduced and passed by the GOP dominated legislature to, allegedly, implement Amendment 4. The amendment passed by a 65% majority of Floridians voting on the issue in 2018.
The amendment was intended to automatically restore voting rights to former inmates and to undo the impact of a long-held policy that unfairly punished minorities.
Most ex-prisoners in Florida not only pay for their crimes during the time they are incarcerated but usually for long after they are released from a detention facility. Florida’s criminal justice system is set up to make offenders pay and pay.
Florida gives judges very little discretion. Not only do Florida prisoners pay in time served (85% of time sentenced required for felony incarceration regardless of circumstances, behavior or other factors) but in dollars. Many criminal justice system fines are outrageous.
While incarcerated, the costs for prisoners to make and receive phone calls from family and friends are outlandish and punish not only the inmate but family and anyone who cares about them. Let’s face it, a large majority of prisoners are low income to begin with and to try to get out of the vicious Florida criminal justice cycle is almost impossible for many former felons.
Florida tacks on about $200 million in fees for those convicted and according to some accounts, about 80% go unpaid. The system is set up to fail these people and disproportionately disenfranchises minorities.
Florida has dragged its feet, especially under the previous Governor’s administration, in restoring rights to ex-felons. Even after being forced by the general public via Constitutional Amendment, many Republican politicians showed up for the 2019 Florida Legislative Session with intent to make it difficult for ex-prisoners to vote and to implement Amendment 4 as intended by the voters.
Why? I believe they “assume” that former prisoners will vote Democratic for the most part. Some may argue that is not the case. I am still a reluctant Republican but vote independently on all issues and candidates. I like to think that most people weigh the merits of every issue and every candidate. Regardless, any assumed or imagined trend that former felons will register for any one party should not factor into human rights.
The irony is that many of today’s GOP profess strong family and Christian values. One of the major fundamental beliefs of most U.S. religions is forgiveness. The basis of Christianity is that everyone can be forgiven and start anew. How can these same lawmakers justify putting obstacles in the way of new beginnings for ex-prisoners.
In its arrogance, the Florida Legislature, as they often do, felt they were much ‘wiser’ than the voting public and tacked on additional hurdles for ex-prisoners to jump. They ignored the intent of voters to give ex-prisoners a second chance at becoming productive members of society.
The ruling party knows full well that requiring all financial obligations to be paid will continue to keep former felons from voting and further prevent many from full participation in society. They also believe that by limiting who can vote, they will continue to hold power.
In the last days of the 2019 Florida Legislative Session, there was a reluctant agreement between the House and the Senate to allow judges to waive costs or convert them into community service hours. Each jurisdiction is going to have to implement a process, in whatever way suits it, and there will NOT be equality across the state of Florida. The following are the likely scenarios for ex-felons wanting to register to vote:
- They could pay fines, fees and restitution in full. But, let’s face it, most ex-felons are from low income families and if and when they are able to get a minimum wage job, requiring these imposed financial obligations up front is going prevent many ex-felons from ever voting. Many states allow ex-felons to pay down their obligations; but not our 2019 Florida Legislature.
- Judges could dismiss fees and fines outright, if victims approve it. This situation muddies the waters in that the intent of voters will not be applied equally across the state. Current law allows judges to waive fees and fines within 60 days of a sentence being given. With the new legislation, each circuit court will have to come up with processes and implementation guides. Our already over-burdened court system will become more backed up due to this burdensome requirement. The result is pushing an ex-felon’s right to vote even further out into the future.
- Judges could convert fines, fees and restitution into community service hours which the ex-felon would have to complete. No consistency in the various jurisdictions ensures that judges won’t equally apply this option. And, what about elderly or sick ex-felons? Senator James Grant, House sponsor, responded in Floor debate that those older and sick felons who might be too weak to work off debt could work in soup kitchens.
I think it might be good for Senator Grant to work in a soup kitchen for a few days. Maybe he would experience some Christian compassion for ex-felons who have not been as fortunate as he and many other legislators have been.
Voters are smart enough to know what they are voting for and do not need to be told by the Legislature, regardless of what party is in power, what they really meant to vote for.
I know what I meant to vote for and the legislature circumvented the will of the Floridians who voted for Amendment 4.