As Florida lawmakers debate how to carry out Amendment 4, which aimed to restore the right to vote to more than a million felons who completed their sentences, there is one thing the House and Senate seem to agree on.
Restitution, the money that felons have to pay out to the victims of their crimes, must be repaid in full before they’re allowed to vote.
There’s just one small problem, though: No one tracks restitution.
County clerks, who log nearly all other aspects of a criminal case, don’t. Florida’s Department of Corrections doesn’t.
Even felons sometimes don’t know how much they owe — or even who they owe it to.
As thousands of felons register to vote, state officials might have to create a statewide system to verify one of the most complicated aspects of someone’s sentence. It’s not going to be cheap. If not done properly, it could delay or prevent thousands of felons from voting.
“I think it’s going to be expensive,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who is helping craft the Senate version of the bill. “It’s going to be in the millions of dollars.”
For many, it’s an unanticipated complication of Amendment 4, which 64.5 percent of voters approved last year. The amendment overturned Florida’s policy of permanent felon disenfranchisement, allowing former felons to vote if they completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.”
Republican lawmakers and some key supporters of Amendment 4 believe sentences includes restitution. Others disagree. (Republicans in the House and Senate differ on whether a sentence should include two other costs — court fees and fines — after they are converted to civil liens.)
For felons, restitution is a fundamental part of someone’s sentence and helps ensure the victim is “made whole,” according to Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which advocated for Amendment 4.
Yet he believes Amendment 4 was self-implementing, and that the Legislature doesn’t need to do anything.
“Adding new bureaucracies and spending millions of dollars tracking down paperwork from 30 years ago is not what the voters voted for in November,” he said.
So what exactly is restitution? It’s the term used for the amounts determined by the courts to cover a victim’s loss, and they’re handed down when judges sentence someone to prison or probation.
It sounds simple. In Florida, it’s not.
Each county in Florida and each judge can handle restitution differently. They could order the felon to pay the victim directly. Or they could have the court clerk collect it.
Further complicating things is that while in prison or on probation, the Department of Corrections collects restitution from the felon and gives it to victims.
Because the amounts can be in the thousands or millions of dollars, felons are required to pay a certain amount each month. They often haven’t paid it off by the time they finish probation. (One woman told lawmakers last week that she owes $59 million in restitution, which she’ll never pay off, therefore preventing her from ever voting.)
Once off probation, however, the Department of Corrections stops collecting restitution. By that point, the amount has usually been converted into a civil lien, and felons pay either a debt collector, their local clerk of court or the victim directly.
But when felons leave custody, the Department of Corrections does not automatically tell them nor court clerks how much of their debt remains outstanding.
Paying back restitution in the years following release can be more complicated still. What happens when the victim you’ve been paying dies? Or the company that you burglarized goes out of business?
And even victims who are still around don’t know what to do with the restitution checks they get, according to Carolyn Timmann, Martin County’s clerk of the circuit court and comptroller, who has been on the forefront of the issue.
“Some of the really big corporations might get a check for $15 and they don’t even bother to cash it,” Timmann said. “They don’t know what to do with it.”
She said felons who keep paying restitution to a victim that doesn’t exist can see the money go to the state’s unclaimed property system.
The result is that no one in Florida knows how many felons owe restitution, or how much they still owe. Brandes said the number of felons unable to vote because of such debts could be in the thousands or hundreds of thousands.
Solving the problem might be left up to a working group made up of state and local officials proposed in the Senate’s bill.
At the least, Timmann said requiring the Department of Corrections to tell clerks how much someone owes when they’re released would help. She also suggested having some state entity collect and distribute restitution so it could be consistently tracked.
One of the few states that does collect and distribute restitution is Vermont. It’s paid for by a 15 percent surcharge on criminal and traffic fines and collected by the Center for Crime Victim Services.
Created in 2004, it has a staff of nine people for a state with a population the size of Polk County. That’s about 3 percent of Florida’s entire population.