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  1. Opinion

Rocket docket: A small, quick fix for the Amendment 4 felon voting debacle?

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren is talking about a "rocket docket" to restore felon voting rights faster. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Jul. 5

What's not to like about a court "rocket docket" to help felons who have done their time get back the right to vote?

Particularly when politicians won't. Even though Florida voters made clear that's what they wanted.

The Florida felon voting rights debacle happened like this: In November, nearly two-thirds of voters said yes to second chances and to automatically restoring voting rights to felons once they complete their sentences, except for those convicted of murder and sex crimes.

The vote for Amendment 4 was a victory over lingering and racist practices of the Jim Crow era, a shameful part of our history. It meant more than a million people could be eligible to get their rights restored, and potentially have a say in the 2020 elections.

Here is where it bears mentioning that many are expected to vote Democrat.

So the voters spoke and then lawmakers stepped in and meddled with a measure that didn't need it. With a stroke of a pen last month, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis made it official: Only felons who had paid every penny of their fees and fines need apply.

You might be thinking: Well, what's wrong with that?

Here's what: Many of these former defendants are simply too poor to pay. In fact, as the Times' Dan Sullivan recently reported, from 2007 to 2017, the Hillsborough County court clerk's office took in less than 3 percent of what was owed the court system.

"The reality is we never collect those fines and fees," says Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren. "They hang over that person's head."

So someone otherwise eligible doesn't have enough money to vote — a concept wholly un-American. Big step forward then a big step back.

Which is when you get creative if you believe in doing what the voters said they wanted. Hillsborough County has an idea. (So does Palm Beach County, as it turns out.)

Judges can waive court costs and turn them into community service hours. Warren is exploring a specialty court for this, particularly in cases involving lower level crimes, through what's called a "rocket docket." The judge (or judges), lawyers and court personnel would be well-versed in the issues involved and able to move cases along at a good clip. Other "boutique" courts have worked well at streamlining what can be a lumbering system.

If the reasons given for push-back on Amendment 4 are genuine, and not a cynical scheme to keep certain citizens from having a vote, how can you not see the sense in this? Isn't giving former defendants the option of working off their debts — of making good — downright American?

There's a million complications to work out before this is any kind of reality. But it's good news that Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta and County Commissioner Les Miller both support the concept.

It's not perfect. Heck, it's not even what the people asked for. And truth is, the fate of Amendment 4 will be decided in the courts, with a lawsuit that includes felons who registered after the amendment passed already in play.

But it's encouraging to see thoughtful ideas for trying to get done what voters made clear they wanted in the first place.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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