A bill that would require ex-felons to pay back all court fees and fines before being allowed to vote was quickly denounced by advocates for Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote last year to more than a million ex-felons.
“This is exactly what we were worried about from the beginning,” said Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “The people spoke, and now the legislators are taking it away from them.”
The House committee bill, which gets its first hearing Tuesday morning, would restrict the number of people who would be eligible to vote, according to Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which advocated for Amendment 4.
“We’re opposed to restricting voting rights," Volz said. “And this bill does that.”
It’s the first bill filed in the Legislature dealing with the rollout of Amendment 4, and it sets up what promises to be a contentious debate in the Legislature this year.
Advocates believe the bill to be self-implementing, requiring no legislation from Tallahassee to carry it out. Indeed, former felons have been registering to vote since January, and voter registrations with elections supervisors have spiked.
But lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis believe they need to define who’s eligible and when they become eligible, and the House and Senate don’t appear to be in agreement so far. The Senate has yet to introduce a bill.
The House bill would:
- Require ex-felons pay all court fees and fines before being eligible, even if those fees are not imposed by a judge.
- Require the Department of Corrections to notify each inmate of his or her obligations before being released.
- Define “felony sexual offenses” to include a wide array of crimes, including prostitution and placing an adult entertainment store within 2,500 feet of a school.
- Require the Secretary of State to set up a process for determining which ex-felons are eligible to vote.
Judges will often require felons pay restitution to victims as part of their sentence. Amendment Four advocates don’t dispute that restitution is part of someone’s sentence.
But court fees and costs are a different story. Those fees can include for electronic monitoring bracelets and drug tests during probation, and are usually not handed down by a judge as part of someone’s sentence.
It’s also a higher standard than under the old system, which required only that a felon pay back all court-ordered restitution. Paying for court costs were not a requirement before applying to have someone’s civil rights restored, according to a state Commission on Offender Review spokeswoman.
Gross said the bill’s standard would create the equivalent of a poll tax.
“It will inevitably prevent individuals from voting based on the size of the person’s bank account,” Gross said. “Those who have the financial means will vote, and those who can’t, won’t.”
She also disputed how the bill defines “felony sexual offenses.” Amendment 4 allowed all felons to automatically get their rights restored except for cases of “murder” and “sexual offenses.”
The bill’s definition is too broad, Gross argued.
“Everybody who voted for this, all of the people, when they heard that, the understanding clearly was … rape, child molestation, serious sexual felony offenses,” she said.
House Criminal Justice Chairman James Grant, R-Tampa, told The News Service of Florida he instructed staff to include all felony sex offenses in the legislation.
“When the Constitution says ‘felony sex offenses’ and that means nothing legally, the best I can do is propose a list of felonies that are sexual,” Grant, a lawyer, said. “The reality is I’m going to do my best effort to maintain what I believe the rule of law now requires in a super-ambiguous constitutional amendment.”
Grant acknowledged the proposal is likely “to get pushback everywhere,” but blames the amendment’s own language for its problems.
“This notion of making policy in the Constitution is problematic for a lot of reasons, and this (Amendment 4) is a great of example of why,” he said.
The House bill doesn’t include an idea that’s been pushed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, however. He wants to include felons convicted of “attempted murder” be excluded from automatic restoration.
News Service of Florida contributed to this report.