Look who’s coming to the aid of ex-felons who’re being cheated out of the right to vote: Prosecutors.
That’s not a joke. It’s a dead-serious effort by the state attorneys of Florida’s four largest counties to work around the barriers created by the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis to, basically, obliterate the historic enfranchising effects of Amendment 4.
That ballot measure, approved by nearly two-thirds of the electorate last November, was meant to automatically restore voting rights for most felons (not murderers or felony sex offenders) who’ve completed their sentences — voting rights largely denied in this state for 150 years. But SB 7066, which went into effect July 1, requires returning felons to pay off all court fines, fees and restitution before they are eligible to vote. With 83 percent of such obligations expected to go uncollected because of inability to pay, voting rights for most ex-felons are as out-of-reach as ever.
Enter — thankfully — the state attorneys.
Why should they care? Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who was a staunch supporter of Amendment 4, says he has always been a foe of voter suppression. He says supporting felons’ re-entry to society is in the interest of public safety: crime incubates, he told The Post Editorial Board, if there’s a “subculture of society that never attains equality.”
And of course, there is a political reason as well. These state attorneys are Democrats, and they are eager to counter-attack after Republicans, fearing that former felons would skew Democratic, enacted a law to keep ex-cons from voting.
Aronberg has taken his inspiration from Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who announced on July 28 a plan to deal with the new law, which requires felons to not just just complete their prison and parole, but to pay off all fines, fees and restitution before they get back their right to vote.
Miami-Dade now intends to establish a “rocket docket,” in which judges will set aside some of those financial penalties. They’re able to do that because of a provision in the law that allows judges to “modify” a sentence by converting fines to community service hours or stipulating that some financial penalties won’t affect one’s voting rights.
Aronberg, in his own announcement on July 29, said that he has hosted four meetings since June with local stakeholders — including Clerk of Courts Sharon Bock and Supervisor of Elections Wendy Sartory Link — and is “encouraged by Miami-Dade’s approach to this issue and am optimistic that we can develop something similar in Palm Beach County that fulfills the promise of Amendment 4.”
Players throughout the justice system must be part of the plan because the system itself is complicated. In Miami-Dade’s case, anyone wanting to set aside financial penalties can file a motion asking the court to modify their sentence; they must include details of their finances. The state attorney’s office will review the request to determine if fines or restitution were part of the original sentence. The clerk of courts will see if an applicant is on a payment plan, and how much is outstanding. The public defender’s office will help any former clients. Three judges will handle the load, which could exceed 100,000 cases, according to the Miami Herald.
Palm Beach County’s procedure will vary somewhat because the two county circuits operate differently, Aronberg said. But he said a plan may be ready as soon as the fall. His office is still trying to determine how many ex-felons might be helped.
Broward County is doing something similar. “Court fines should not get in the way of voting,” Broward State Attorney Michael Satz said in a statement. And so is Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa. The state attorney there, Andrew Warren, announced a “rocket docket” allowing mostly low-level offenders to ask a judge to convert fines to community service. As in Miami-Dade, offenders who still owe restitution to a victim won’t be eligible for a waiver.
Thousands of Floridians voted in Amendment 4 to overturn the lifelong voting ban for felons, ridding this state of a shameful remnant of Reconstruction aimed at keeping black men from voting. With their unnecessary meddling in the amendment, the legislature and governor nullified its effects with a modern-day poll tax. The constitutionality of their legal mischief is being challenged, rightly, in a federal lawsuit led by the American Civil Liberties Union.
It’s gratifying that our local court officials aren’t waiting for a ruling to come down from on high. Felons who have amply paid for their crimes with prison sentences, parole and probation deserve their voting rights automatically restored. And the 5.1 million Floridians who put Amendment 4 into the state constitution by a nearly 2:1 margin deserve to see their will fulfilled.
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