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'Gifts’ for 30 Hillsborough felons seeking right to vote: no more fines or fees

Through a combination of forgiveness and fundraising, fines and fees have been wiped out for 30 residents in the county.

'Tis the season of giving. And for 30 Hillsborough residents, the gift they received Friday was “life-changing,” “ballistic,” “an honor.”

The group, made up of former felons, will no longer have to pay the county outstanding court fines and fees, removing an obstacle in a quest to register to vote again.

The gift-givers were the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a non-profit, and Hillsborough County Clerk Pat Frank. The non-profit paid nearly $33,000 to cover 60 percent of the group’s costs and Frank waived the remaining 40 percent.

Cecilia Washington, 40, who said she was convicted of fraud, owed more than $675 to the county, records show. Speaking to reporters at the courthouse Friday, the Tampa woman called the gift “a blessing."

“It was just ballistic. I mean, I’m so grateful, I’m about to cry,” she said, adding that she cannot wait to register to vote.

Cecilia Washington, an organizer with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, poses for a portrait after speaking during a news conference to announce the elimination of remaining court fines and fees for 31 former felons seeking to register to vote. "I am somebody, my voice matters," Washington exclaimed at the podium. "I'm running down to the polls." On Friday, Dec. 20, 2019 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“I feel like I am somebody. My voice matters.”

Before this year, committing a felony meant losing the right to vote in Florida, unless someone overcame long odds to appeal to the state’s clemency board, made up of the governor and the Florida Cabinet.

But voters in 2018 passed Amendment 4, which allowed most felons (except convicted murderers or sex offenders) to register to vote once they completed their sentence. A 2019 law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature established that completing a sentence meant paying off outstanding court fines, fees and restitution first.

Critics of the state law have filed suit with the Florida Supreme Court, arguing it unfairly punishes those who can’t afford to pay.

Frank is a critic herself. Those with money “go home free” while the rest are denied the right to vote, she said.

“So I had vowed that as clerk, whatever power I have, I’m going to take to try to right that wrong and to give these persons, who are returning citizens, their full rights."

While the courts are technically taking a loss, Frank explained that before this decision, they hadn’t received any of it anyway. Some 90 percent of assigned costs are never paid. Now, she said, at least they’ll collect 60 percent, and everybody wins.

Court officials and the nonprofit chose to give the initial gift to these initial Hillsborough residents, a subset of 200 people statewide, because they do not owe any remaining restitution. It’s hard to know how many felons still owe money to the courts. For example, sometimes a judge will order restitution directly paid to a victim, rather than through the clerk of court’s tracking system.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group that is run by and represents “returning citizens,” had raised more than $280,000 for the campaign as of Friday. More than $32,000 went to the Hillsborough recipients.

While felons who owe astronomical costs have garnered attention in the news, the gift shows that many have smaller debts. The sums are still hard for someone living paycheck-to-paycheck, but can be covered by the fundraising effort. On average, the 30 residents owed about $1,800 each. After the 40 percent discount, the Coalition paid less than $1,100 per person.

Ronnie Reddish of Tampa served time for theft and drug convictions and owed the county more than $7,000, records showed. Reddish, who turns 60 Saturday, works as a handyman. He said he wants to vote in the first election he can and that outstanding costs shouldn’t preclude someone from voting.

“No one should have to do time, and then do time once they’ve done time.”

He said he wants to work to make sure others re-gain their right to vote as well. “We need more of us, like this, to make a difference.”

Ronnie Reddish, 59, attends a news conference to announce the elimination of remaining court fines and fees for 31 former felons seeking to register to vote. On Friday, Dec. 20, 2019 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

But it’s not all smooth sailing ahead. Several of the recipients, including Reddish, still owe money in other counties for other crimes.

Bakari Brown, 40 of Tampa, felt especially hurt when he lost his right to vote, because of his old job.

“I’m a former poll worker,” he told reporters.

Brown had $1,000 paid off for cases in which he was convicted of driving with a revoked license.

He said re-gaining his right to vote is meaningful “in so many ways, that some of you will never know.”