Under Florida’s Amendment 4, can felons afford to vote?

Republicans and Democrats — and even judges and court clerks — can’t agree on what it means to complete someone’s sentence.
Published March 21, 2019|Updated March 22, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — If you ask former Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stanford Blake, the hundreds of dollars in court fees convicted felons have to pay are not part of their sentence.

“In my opinion, court costs do not amount to a sentence,” he said Thursday.

But if you ask Pinellas Clerk of Courts Ken Burke, they’re an integral part of someone’s sentence in his county, right next to a prison sentence.

“How can it not be part of the sentence?” Burke said.

Welcome to the new debate surrounding Amendment 4.

What seemed like a simple amendment restoring the right to vote to nearly all felons who have completed their sentence has become wildly complicated in the Legislature.

Republicans and Democrats — and even judges and court clerks — can’t agree on what it means to complete someone’s sentence.

And court fees, which can total more than $1,000, are at the heart of the debate. Already, national figures like New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have dubbed it a “poll tax,” and others have accused the Republican-controlled Legislature of keeping people from voting.

The results could, indeed, keep hundreds of thousands of potential former felons off the voter rolls.

“This is an issue that would impact hundreds of thousands of people in the Tampa Bay area,” said Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which advocated for Amendment 4. “It is not as easy as folks think it is.”

Court fees are not to be confused with court fines and restitution, which many agree are considered part of someone’s sentence.

Fines are written into state law, but they’re handed down by a judge when someone is convicted of a particular crime, such as drug trafficking, which carries a $50,000 fine. Restitution goes to pay back crime victims — embezzle $20,000 from your boss, for example, and expect to have to pay it back in restitution.

Fees, on the other hand, are mandatory under state laws and county ordinances, and therefore vary by county.

Together, fees add up to hundreds of dollars. If you’re convicted of a felony in Pinellas County, for example, you’re going to pay at least $413 in fees, in the form of a crime prevention fee ($50), crimes compensation fund fee ($50), fine and forfeiture fund fee ($225), Crime Stoppers fee ($20), a teen court fee ($3) and a court costs fee ($65).

That doesn’t include two other fees you’re likely to pay: a public defender application fee ($50) and a state attorney costs of prosecution fee ($100).

The money goes to court clerks and state agencies.

Those costs may seem small, but it can be a significant hurdle for many felons who already have trouble finding work after leaving prison.

“Suddenly, you’re expecting people to pay upward of $1,000 in fines and fees that have nothing to do with punishment,” Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez said. “It’s just a way for the government to get money in their coffers.”

Two bills in the Florida’s House and Senate would require former felons pay back all court-ordered fees before being eligible to vote. The House’s version is broad, however, and could include fees never handed out during sentencing, such as interest payments owed to debt collectors if you fall back on your payments.

But are they part of someone’s sentence?

Stanford Blake, the longtime chief administrative judge over Miami-Dade’s criminal division, said he did not consider them as part of the sentences he handed out during his years on the bench.

“Restitution is one thing. Court costs and normal fees are thrown on as something else,” he said. “In my opinion, if the person has done their time, and completed their probation, the sentence is complete.”

Lawmakers and some county clerks disagree, since the fees are applied at the same time as a sentence.

Despite the consternation over fees, the combined costs of fines and restitution can be much more. Both the House and Senate bills require felons to pay back their fines and restitution. While supporters of Amendment 4 object to fees being required before the restoration of voting rights, they say they don’t object to fines and restitution.

Take all three together, and the result is likely to be lifetime voting bans for vast numbers of felons, who could spend decades slowly paying back insurmountable fines, restitution and fees while living crime-free lives.

The Legislature should simply let felons vote after serving their prison, parole and probation sentences, but while paying back these costs, according to Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project.

Other states allow former felons to vote while they still owe costs associated with their crime, she said.

“The question is not whether they will pay the financial obligations they owe,” Ebenstein said. “It’s whether Amendment 4 allows the Legislature to disenfranchise people potentially for the rest of their life while they’re paying down their obligations.”

So far, lawmakers appear unwilling to take that position. Amendment 4 allowed felons to get their voting rights back “upon completion of their sentences,” and lawmakers are including restitution and fines as part of the sentence. In addition, lawmakers are adding court fees.

But that interpretation is unconstitutional, according to Ashley Thomas, Florida director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nonprofit created last year pushing to reform costs within the justice system.

“The ability to vote should never be conditioned on your ability to pay a court cost,” Thomas said.