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Critics See Jim Crow Poll Taxes In House Plan To Make Felons Pay Up Before Voting

| March 19, 2019

Florida has a hankering for bad old days: a black man steps up to the 'colored' section of a movie house. (Library of Congress)

Florida has a hankering for bad old days: a black man steps up to the ‘colored’ section of a movie house. (Library of Congress)

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.

–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida

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9 Responses for “Critics See Jim Crow Poll Taxes In House Plan To Make Felons Pay Up Before Voting”

  1. Merrill Shapiro says:

    What an embarrassment to our state these Republicans are! Shame on them!

  2. DSkeels says:

    Well we all know Democrats pushed the Jim Crow laws. Racist through and through those Democrats…. I guess they assume only black people are criminals??they will have voting rights restored after they have PAYED their debt to society!

  3. Josh David says:

    Sorry folks. I gotta call bullshit. I’m on the front line of getting felons the right to vote. In the 1,000 pleas I’ve been a part of, every single one addresses court costs and/or restitution. It’s a contract one is entering into. Contract Law is pretty simple. Meet your obligations, get the right to vote. All this ‘Jim Crow’ garbage is simply rhetoric. Honor your word and you should be allowed to vote. It’s actually very simple.

  4. Stretchem says:

    The chickens are coming home to roost for the sanctimonious far right bible thumpers in this state and those who’ve enabled them. Florida will be blue in 2020 as their decades long rein of voter suppression and gerrymandering comes to an abrupt end.

  5. Agkistrodon says:

    If paying Restitution and fines is PART of one’s SENTENCE, then the SENTENCE is NOT complete until those fines are paid. It either IS or IS NOT, can’t be both or partial..

  6. Billy says:

    What? This is an embarrassment for the Dems – trying to again buy votes because they cannot win an election! We all voted for ex-cons to vote ONLY after they have completed ALL their requirements and not a minute before! Example – you need to complete all your classes and pay all your fines to get your drivers licenses back – but I don’t hear Jim Crow concerns with that. ALL ABOUT THE VOTES FOLK!

  7. Concerned Citizen says:

    Your rights should not be restored until ALL of your sentencing requirements are completed. This should include any financial obligations.

    You put your victim at a disadvantage when you committed your crime. Make sure you pay that debt before demanding YOUR rights back.

  8. L Hendrickson says:

    According to Florida State Prisoner Site-there are ONLY 166,000 people still on parole/probation at this time. Are they trying to institute penalties and fines on all of the 1.5 million ex-felons or just on the remaining 166,000 people who are remaining on parole / probation. If the state legislature is institute penalties and fines on the 1,344,000 persons who NO LONGER are on parole/probation, then they are acting as JUDGES and I believe that is against the LAW. If they are simply just attempting to enforce the existing law for the remaining 166,000 people, then there is NO NEED for this nonsense. These people are still on parole/probation and are NOT ALLOWED to register to Vote YET. They have not met the conditions to register to Vote. This is simply an attempt upon the STATE LEGISLATURE to DISENFRANCHISE and COMPLICATE the PROCESS and subvert the WILL of the FLORIDA VOTER! SHAME ON THEM!

  9. Concerned Citizen says:

    @ Josh Davis

    I agree with you on this one. A lot of rhetoric and people are being more sympathetic towards felons than their victims.

    It’s really quite simple. Your sentence is complete when restitution is complete. You get your rights back when ALL of your obligation is fullfilled not some of it.

    You comitted a crime that put someone at a disadvantage. Pay your debt in full then vote.

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