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Senate Panel Advances Bill That Would Require Felons to Pay Fines and Restitution Before Voting

| April 8, 2019

Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration and chair of the sponsoring committee of Amendment 4 for Floridians for a Fair Democracy, addressing the Senate committee today. (© FlaglerLive cia Florida Channel)

Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration and chair of the sponsoring committee of Amendment 4 for Floridians for a Fair Democracy, addressing the Senate committee today. (© FlaglerLive via Florida Channel)

With little debate, allowance for just one opponent to speak and a time-certain end to discussion that cut off all possibility of further discussion, the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee at 6 p.m. approved a controversial bill that would require felons to pay most financial obligations in the terms of the sentence even after serving parole or probation.

The 3-2 party-line vote followed a hurried 27-minute hearing on the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, the Pinellas County Republican. Opponents of the bill are pleading to make financial burdens a roadblock to voting.

They were not without a small victory today: Brandes’ original bill expanded the definition of “murder” to include “attempted murder” among the prohibitions on voter restoration. David Simmons, the committee chair and an Orlando Republican, offered an amendment that stripped that provision from Brandes’s bill. Simmons’s amendment also eliminates court and other costs converted to civil liens–as opposed to fines and restitution–from required payments before the voting right is restored. Proponents of Amendment 4 called it a step in the right direction, but not enough of one.

The majority vote included that of Sen. Travis Hutson, the Palm Coast Republican. In late March the original bill cleared the Criminal Justice Committee by the same 3-2 vote. A similar bill , sponsored by Rep. James Grant, a Tampa Republican, passed the House State Affairs Committee on a 15-6 party-line vote last week. The House Judiciary Committee hears the bill Tuesday.

Last November 65 percent of Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that restores felons’ right to vote “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation.”  Those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense were excluded. The amendment does not call on the Legislature or a state agency to interpret it.

“Some believe this is a self-implementing bill,” Brandes said, presenting his bill. But he said the terms “murder,” “felony sexual offenses,” and “all terms of sentence” had to be interpreted, and that it was the Legislature’s job to do so by seeking to find out the intent of voters through the intent of the amendment’s sponsors. Those sponsors, he said, both before Supreme Court justices and on their websites, had included financial restitution as part of the terms of sentence.  

As of March 14, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition stated on its website that “completion of all terms of sentence” includes any period of incarceration, probation, parole, and financial obligations imposed as part of an individual’s sentence, a legislative analysis of the Brandes bill states. “The FRRC further stated that the financial obligations contemplated may include restitution, fines, and fees imposed as part of a sentence or a condition
of probation under existing Florida statutes. However, it stated that ‘fees not specifically identified as part of a sentence or a condition of probation are therefore not necessary for ‘completion of sentence’ and thus, do not need to be paid before an individual may register.’

“Maybe some of these terms need clarification. That is often the case with terms in our constitution,” Sen. Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said. “The question is, who gets to make that clarification. There’s no reason why for example the courts are not competent or even our secretary of state.”

“Generally the Legislature would have the responsibility to provide implementing language. The courts and the secretary of state generally do not provide broad, implementing language, and I think this bill clearly indicates that it needs implementing language to define these terms.” Brandes is right: the bill does. The amendment, however, does not.

Rodriguez briefly tendered two amendments but withdrew them, both to restore additional rights to felons–the right to regain licensure for certain jobs, and the right to sit on juries again. Speaking on WNZF last week, Rep. Paul Renner, the Palm Coast Republican who supports the more restrictive restoration of rights, nevertheless said that he supported granting additional rights to felons such as sitting on juries or regaining licensure rights.

Audio: Desmond Meade’s Complete Statement

desmond meade

Only one opponent of the bill was given time to speak: Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration and chair of the sponsoring committee of Amendment 4 for Floridians for a Fair Democracy. He said he fundamentally opposed the bill, “but we’re hopeful for what we’re seeing now, what we just heard,” he said.

“For over 20 years you’ve had colleagues in both the House and the Senate introduce legislation to address this issue, and the Florida House, the Florida Senate refused to address this issue,” Meade said. “They walked away from people like me,” he said, his voice breaking, “who served our time, and all we wanted to do is be part of this democracy again. All we wanted to do was move on with their lives. But the Florida Legislature ignored our cries, ignored the cries of our families for years and years and years and years. And eventually, we the people decided that we wanted to stand on our own, we wanted to do something that the Florida Legislature refused to do.”

He continued, “And now after we’ve carried that ball, the Legislature wants to insert itself into something that we did on our own without any help from any member of the Legislature.”

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10 Responses for “Senate Panel Advances Bill That Would Require Felons to Pay Fines and Restitution Before Voting”

  1. Paula says:

    Read this – it is extremely eye-opening. You’ll see why regular residents/voters don’t have much of a chance against special interest groups and lobbyists when it comes to bills presented by legislators:

  2. Louc says:

    I would like to hear a counter argument, supported by facts that the Grand Old Party GOP, don’t stand for VOTER SUPPRESSION.

  3. Steve says:

    Damn straight pay up or no deal

  4. Concerned Citizen says:

    Everyone seems up in arms about this but it’s quite simple.

    Complete ALL of your sentencing requirements and you get your rights back. What seems so hard to understand about that. I understand that sometimes people unintentionally run afoul of the law but most of the time it’s a poor choice. You committed a crime and unfortunately restitution is part of sentencing.

    Everyone seems hung up on felons getting rights back. What do we do to make things right for the victims who are affected by crimes? Do they get second chances?

  5. Agkistrodon says:

    It is really very simple. Fines and fees ARE part of the sentence. If I get a DUI,( for the record, I never have), I do NOT get my license back, UNTIL all fines and fees are paid, cause it is PART of the sentence. I have never been convicted of a FELONY cause I have NEVER committed one, that was MY choice.

  6. Geezer says:

    Well, now that the GOP is whittling away at felons’ right to vote–why stop
    there? Let’s make higher education even harder to obtain, in order to keep
    the people stupid. This will guarantee more Trump-like candidates that
    will take us back one hundred years! As a bonus–more felons!

    We can report higher levels of employment by growing big-box stores and
    filling them with low-paid workers–workers that will vote against their own
    interests! However; we will need to bring the Americans up to speed, speaking
    Mandarin, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese.
    China is becoming daddy soon, because Americans are sleepwalking,
    focusing on a wall with Mexico, as the country is falling behind China.
    All the while, China is building up its military to face off with America and NATO.

    But hey, we’re making bigotry great again!

  7. Arl says:

    I thought the Amendment read that ALL restitution had to be resolved, i.,e., restitution, fines, court fees, community service, etc. Did I miss something when I voted for it?

  8. capt says:

    You commit a crime, you serve time and then you pay the fines. Its that simple.

  9. Born and Raised Here says:

    Most, if not all of these Felons couldn’t even afford a Lawyer and had to be appointed a State Public Defender. How do we expect them to pay there fines and court fees ?

  10. Weldon Ryan says:

    So unconstitutional! Racism and voter suppression abound!

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