In last year’s election, Florida citizens overwhelmingly voted in favor of Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to most people that commit felonies after their sentence is complete. The amendment as approved by Florida voters would allow felons to vote “upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation” unless they had been convicted of murder or a sex offense. However, in implementing the amendment during this year’s legislative season, the Florida legislature made one small yet significant change to the wording of the amendment: it clarified “all terms to sentence” to include paying any and all required fees, fines and victim restitution.
The Potential Ramifications of the Florida Legislature’s Changes
What does that mean for Florida’s felons hoping to gain the right to vote? It could signal a major roadblock for many who would otherwise qualify under the amendment. According to a report issued by the Florida County Clears and Comptrollers, courts across the state assessed over a billion dollars in court costs, fines and other monetary penalties between October 2017 and September 2018. Other statistics indicated that in Broward, Palm and Miami-Dade Counties alone, the current number of outstanding fines owed by felons tops a billion dollars when interest is included.
The Requirement to Pay All Fines Due May Undermine the Intended Purpose of Amendment 4
For many Florida residents who have otherwise served their sentences following a felony conviction, this immense amount of money owed may keep them out of the voting booth. Sharon Bock, county clerk for Palm Beach County and president of the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, notes that the steps needed to satisfy this requirement are also highly complicated. The clerk’s office for each county handles fines, fees and court costs following a felony conviction–but this office does not handle restitution, making the hurdles that need to be cleared to get voting rights back a “multistep process.”
Why the Changed Requirements May Have Such Widespread Consequences?
The Brennen Center for Justice reports that approximately 2,000 felons had registered to vote in the three months prior to the legislature’s move to redefine “all terms of sentence” to include fines, fees and restitution. Many involved in criminal justice reform expect the rate of felon voter registration to slow significantly following these new requirements.
As the nonprofit organization Prison Policy Initiative points out, those who were formerly incarcerated face an unemployment rate of 27 percent–five times higher than the overall population. Minorities and women face even higher unemployment rates, with black women who used to be incarcerated seeing an unemployment rate of almost 44 percent.
In other words, while the passage of Amendment 4 was seen as a major victory for voting rights advocates, the changes instituted by the Florida legislature mean that the right to vote for felons may remain as limited as it was a year ago.