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DeSantis defends decision to appeal ruling in felon voting law, citing needs of victims

“We hardly ever talk about victims any more in this country," he said.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis defended his decision to appeal a federal judge’s ruling over Florida’s felon voting law, saying that felons should be required to pay back all restitution to victims before voting, even if they can’t afford to do so.

“If somebody gets robbed, they have a right to have restitution paid to them,” he said during a Friday news conference in Miami. “We hardly ever talk about victims any more in this country. There are people that are victimized by violent crimes in particular who I think we need to be standing up for.”

Amendment 4, passed by voters in 2018, allowed more than 1 million felons, except for those convicted of murder and sex crimes, to vote as long as they completed “all terms” of sentence. The Florida Supreme Court, at DeSantis’ direction, last year said that “all terms” included all court fees, fines and restitution to victims.

DeSantis said he agreed with that interpretation.

“If you were robbed and someone’s convicted of taking $3,000 out of their house, and they were ordered to pay $3,000 in restitution, and they didn’t do it, did they complete the sentence?” he said.

Related: DeSantis urges federal court to put felon voting rights ruling on hold

But Amendment 4 did not say that felons don’t have to pay back restitution to victims. Felons are still legally required to pay restitution. Other states allow felons to vote as they are paying down what they owe.

What a federal judge ruled last month is that Florida felons don’t have to pay what they owe back before voting — if they can’t afford it. One woman, for example, owes $59 million in restitution, an amount so large that she would never be allowed to vote.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that it’s unconstitutional to require felons to pay back restitution to victims or court fines, such as a $50,000 fine for drug trafficking, before voting.

He also wrote that requiring felons to pay mandatory court fees amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax. Felons often have to pay hundreds of dollars in court fees when they’re sentenced. The fees mostly subsidize the criminal justice system.

DeSantis defended one of those fees — the $50 victims’ compensation fund fee — without addressing all the other fees that make up the vast majority of what a felon can owe.

“Some of these fees or the costs, costs, those go into victim compensation funds,” he said. “That’s the whole reason that they have that there, something that’s very important.”

Hinkle’s ruling required elections officials to allow people to vote if they claimed they couldn’t afford to pay off their court fines or restitution. Court fees, he ruled, did not have to be paid back.

DeSantis this week asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to put Hinkle’s ruling on hold, arguing the decision could “corrupt” the integrity of the state’s elections.

While the Florida Supreme court defined “all terms” of sentence, the justices notably did not weigh in on when those terms of sentence expired. DeSantis did not ask the justices to answer that question.

Hinkle did define when those terms expired, at least in part. He ruled that if a felons’ financial obligations were converted to civil liens — something that nearly always happens — those people can be allowed to vote.

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