WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida judges and prosecutors are working with felons and public defenders to find ways to register former inmates to vote, a process approved by voters last year that Republican legislators have made more difficult.
To work around a law passed this spring that requires individuals to pay all fines, fees and restitution before they can register, court officials in cities such as Miami and Tampa are modifying sentences and making plans to allow some debts to be converted to community service. In smaller towns, volunteers are holding fundraisers to pay off penalties for residents.
Voting-rights activists applaud these efforts but say they’re worried that a patchwork of changes may confound hundreds of thousands of potential voters in the months leading up to the state’s March 17 presidential primary.
“There is a lot of confusion,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “The legislature did not respect the will of the voters and did their own interpretation of Amendment 4.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed the law in June — a change immediately affecting between 500,000 and 800,000 people who together owe more than $1 billion in charges stemming from their convictions.
Florida voters overwhelmingly passed the constitutional amendment, which automatically restored voting rights to most individuals with felony records upon completion of their sentences. The result, covering as many as 1.5 million people, represented the country’s largest expansion of voting rights in a half-century.
But the GOP-led legislature added caveats. Supporters defend them as a way to ensure that criminal sentences are fully completed.
On Monday, Miami-Dade County officials announced a plan to modify sentences for felons who still owe fines or fees so they can vote. Restitution — money that offenders owe victims — is less common and cannot be waived under the new statute.
Across the state in Tampa, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew H. Warren views his “rocket docket” strategy as a way to keep people from being trapped in the system by sums that can reach into the thousands of dollars.
“Florida disproportionately burdens poor people coming through the court system,” he said, noting that expecting them to pay “excessive fines and fees” is unrealistic.
Released felons owe Hillsborough County an estimated $500 million — and typically about 3 percent is collected, Warren said. Without intervention, such as converting most felons’ fines and fees into community service, he fears that thousands of “returned citizens” will never be able to vote.
“You end up with a two-tiered criminal-justice system,” he said Monday. “We’re trying to avoid creating two classes of voters: people who can afford to vote and people who cannot.”
Of the state’s 20 judicial circuits, just a few have announced any plan to help felons deal with outstanding fines so they can register.
A Restoration of Voting Rights Work Group, required in the new law, has yet to meet, even though it must be running by Thursday. Sarah Revell, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State, said the agency “is on track to fully comply” with the law, which also mandates a report to the legislature by Nov. 1.
Neil Volz is the political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group that organized the campaign to pass Amendment 4. He lives in Lee County in southwestern Florida, where no system has yet been set up to help felons get past the financial hurdle.
But volunteers there are raising money to pay off some of those debts.
“There are folks trying to be creative and operate under the law to get returned citizens plugged in and registered,” Volz said. “We have returned citizens across the state working with local officials to manage this.”
Volz’s organization offers assistance on its website for people who want to apply to have their sentences modified in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg said in a statement Monday that his office wants to develop a system “that fulfills the promise of Amendment 4.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Florida sued the state soon after DeSantis signed the law adding those financial caveats. The groups want the state to adhere to the language of the amendment approved by voters. The amendment exempted only felons convicted of murder or felony sex offenses.
“If you’re in Miami-Dade or Hillsborough and you’ve got officials trying to help returned citizens to register, that’s great,” said Brigham of the League of Women Voters. “But what if you live in a part of the state where that isn’t happening?”