BY DARA KAM
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – Whether felons who’ve completed their time behind bars or on probation should have their voting rights restored if they haven’t paid off all of their financial obligations has become a flashpoint as lawmakers grapple with carrying out a November constitutional amendment.
Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, has crafted a bill that’s shot him into the national spotlight, infuriated advocates of the amendment and spawned hundreds of phone calls and emails to legislators urging them to kill the proposal.
The constitutional amendment, which appeared on the November 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 voter-approved amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
Grant’s definition of what it means to have completed sentences has created the firestorm.
BILL REQUIRES PAYMENT
Under the House proposal (HB 7089), felons would have to pay all court fees, fines and restitution to be eligible for the “automatic” vote restoration.
Under current law, felons on probation must also reimburse the state for the costs of supervision, which could include fees for electronic monitoring or drug tests. Failure to pay those fees could result in revocation of probation, or the Department of Corrections could waive the fees, according to a staff analysis of the bill.
The House proposal defines “term of sentence” as including “any cost of supervision or other monetary obligation,” a sticking point for proponents of the amendment.
“If it is in the four corners of the sentence, it is the sentence,” Grant told the House State Affairs Committee prior to a party-line, 15-6 vote Tuesday on the bill.
The House measure would also require full payment of restitution or other financial obligations that have been converted to civil judgments, another point of contention for proponents of the amendment.
‘REDEFINING’ THE AMENDMENT
Cecile Scoon, a lawyer and an officer with the League of Women Voters of Florida, argued that the House measure would also allow state agencies, such as the Department of Corrections, to levy fines against felons, which they would have to pay to be eligible for the automatic vote restoration. That’s not what voters who supported the amendment envisioned, she said.
“This is why people are offended. This is redefining what is Amendment 4 and going well outside what was said when the people voted,” Scoon said.
The House has relied heavily on the words of the amendment backers, who have said in court and on the internet that a sentence includes fees, fines and restitution ordered by a judge.
Proponents of the measure maintain the amendment is self-executing – that it doesn’t need legislation to be carried out. But if the Legislature insists on acting, they’re asking lawmakers to rely on standards the state clemency board uses when considering restoration of voting rights, which exclude certain financial obligations such as court costs, fines and fees.
Neal Volz, the political director of one of the committees behind the amendment, told the House panel that “voters wanted to expand democracy” by adopting the measure.
“Let’s go there. … Did you finish incarceration? Did you finish probation? Did you finish court-ordered restitution?” Volz said. “We can simplify this process. We don’t want to create a bunch of new bureaucracies.”
GRANT DEFENDS MEASURE
But Grant, who pounded the podium at times during Thursday’s discussion of the measure, suggested the amendment’s supporters were pulling an “ambush” on voters, by changing their positions on what it means for a sentence to be complete.
“When the voters were offered a contract, and they were asked, ‘Do you believe in the automatic restoration of rights after they complete all terms of their sentence,’ we are going to honor that,” Grant, a lawyer, said.
“I’ll never tolerate a scenario where the rug is pulled out from underneath our voters, who are told explicitly one thing to get something to pass and then they come up here and then subsequently tell a mutually exclusive story.”
Others stressed how participating in elections helps felons who’ve been released from prison or probation be integrated into their communities.
“When you are free from confinement, you must be free for the opportunity to vote. If not, you are still confined, just not between prison walls,” Rep. Clovis Watson, D-Alachua, said.
FELON SPEAKS OUT
Lance Wissinger, a convicted felon, said the House plan creates two classes of felons.
“What we are doing right now with the bill seems like it is targeting a certain demographic. It seems like it is going after people with low income, and it’s not giving everyone the opportunity to have their ability to vote back,” Wissinger said.
Grant, however, argued that the Legislature is duty-bound to implement the amendment, as written.
“I believe our criminal justice system’s broken,” he said, pointing out that he’s backed several criminal justice reforms. “But this isn’t a conversation about what we want or what we feel or what we think is best.”