Hillsborough's smart move to honor Amendment 4 | Editorial

MONICA HERNDON   |   Times (2018) Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren.
MONICA HERNDON | Times (2018) Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren.
Published July 5, 2019

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-led Florida Legislature took their first opportunity to ignore the voters' will by creating hurdles to a new constitutional amendment that is supposed to automatically restore voting rights to more than 1 million felons. But now some in law enforcement and the courts are pushing back by envisioning practical ways for felons to overcome those obstacles and regain their voting rights. This isn't the ideal solution to a punitive, unnecessary law; relying on sensible prosecutors in individual circuits guarantees that justice won't be applied equally across the state. But the effort in Hillsborough County and elsewhere could at least provide help to many felons and frame the fairness question now before the courts.

The amendment voters approved in November is crystal clear: Felons not convicted of murder or sex crimes shall have their voting rights restored "upon completion of all terms of sentence including parole or probation." Republican lawmakers interpreted the restriction expansively, declaring it requires the payment of all court fines, fees and restitution. The bill, which DeSantis signed into law Friday, makes an exception for judges to waive fines and fees, or to convert them into community service hours. But the legislation provided no practical way to make that happen. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of felons were left in the lurch — either lost in the chaos or lacking the money to pay their outstanding costs in full.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren wants to address this injustice en masse. As the Tampa Bay Times' Dan Sullivan reported, Warren is exploring the possibility of having judges waive court costs in favor of community service for a large number of cases. A so-called "rocket docket," or special court, could transform the debts that hundreds of thousands of defendants owe to the criminal justice system. While the plan is far from final, it would correct this legislative abuse and provide community service benefits in return. Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta supports the idea, which Palm Beach County is also exploring.

Much of the work could fall to the Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court, as local officials would have to create a system for determining which felons are eligible and the outstanding costs involved. Warren told the Times editorial board Tuesday he wants to make it convenient for felons to participate, but is rightly mindful that the obligation on delivering falls to the state, not to those seeking a constitutional guarantee. Lawyers are already challenging the new law in federal court on equal protection and other grounds. While the courts will ultimately resolve this issue, Hillsborough's proactive effort honors the intent of Amendment 4. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe's opposition to the docket is a disappointment and underscores the arbitrary impact of the legislation.

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DeSantis tried to take the sting out of the law by announcing he is considering whether to seek restoration of other rights to felons — such as the ability to hold public office — not encompassed by Amendment 4. But he also faulted Amendment 4 for applying to some violent felons without regard to the wishes of victims — "a mistake" the governor wrote, that he "would not want to compound."

Florida voters passed Amendment 4 to right a historic injustice. The governor and Legislature responded by embracing a scheme to suppress the vote of those felons who were supposed to have their rights restored automatically. It's up to the courts to protect the voters' intent to help felons reintegrate and contribute to society. In the meantime, Hillsborough County and other communities should be applauded for moving a broken promise toward a better outcome.