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Miami-Dade State Attorney Preparing Plan To Restore Voting Rights, Even If Money Is Owed

Miami Herald

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office -- the largest prosecutor’s office in the state of Florida -- is moving forward with a plan that would soften the financial blow of state law SB 7066 that ties the restoration of voting rights to someone’s ability to pay fines, fees and restitution for a felony offense.

The controversial law was passed after Amendment 4 put an end to Florida’s lifelong ban on voting for people with felony convictions. The Amendment to the state constitution, which passed last November with 65% of votes, declared that ex-felons would “automatically” have their voting rights restored after completing “all the terms of their sentence.” The ensuing state law specified that fines, fees and restitution must be paid before someone’s sentence is completed. 

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle told WLRN that her office is developing a plan in collaboration with several other local agencies to help identify people who are unable to pay fines and fees and help them come up with alternatives to making payments. Hundreds of millions of dollars in fines alone are owed across the state, including $278 million in Miami-Dade County alone, WLRN has previously reported.

“We should not be an obstacle for a person who has the right to vote,” said Fernandez-Rundle. As a prosecutor, her office has the standing to to alter the terms of old cases.

The plan being developed makes Miami-Dade the third prosecutor’s office in the state that is exploring how to work around the parameters of the state law that explicitly ties money to the right to vote. State Attorneys in Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties have been looking into the idea as well.

Fernandez-Rundle’s office convened a grand jury in 2017 to explore the issue of voting rights restoration. In its interim report, issued last year, the body found that restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions “reduces the chance that the felon will commit another crime.”

Helping people with felony convictions regain their right to vote would help save tax dollars on future incarceration, as well as helping them reintegrate back into society, according to the report. The grand jury encouraged voters to pass Amendment 4.

"Those who can pay should pay, and those who cannot can work out something else, like community service hours,” said Fernandez-Rundle. “It is not a waiver.”

The proposed solution would only pertain to fines and fees that are owed. Restitution is generally agreed to be a part of a criminal sentence that is at the discretion of a judge to alter.

The state law SB 7066 has sparked several federal lawsuits, alleging that tying the right to vote to someone’s ability to pay fines and fees is a “poll tax.” The law has also sparked a broader discussion in the state about how fines and fees are meted out for criminal and non-criminal convictions. Currently the state’s criminal court system is largely funded by charging fines and fees to defendants who interact with the court system, rather than by general tax funds.

Republican Senator Jeff Brandes helped pass the final version of the new state law. Last month Senate President Bill Galvano approved Brandes' request for the state to conduct an in-depth review of fines and fees policies in criminal cases, which is due in November.

“If you look at Florida statutes there are all kinds of fines and fees that make no sense. For example, if you steal a fish from an aquacultural facility and you’re convicted of that, the judge has to give you a $10,000 fine. Well -- if you’re stealing a fish from an aquacultural facility, you probably don’t have $10,000,” said Brandes. “My goal [in the coming review] is: what’s the philosophy behind our fines and fees structure? What’s our goal here? Is our goal to simply penalize? What are the effective fine and fee strategies from around the country that work?”

In the interim, state attorney’s offices are taking steps to address the topic.

Other offices that are helping Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office in trying to hammer out details of what the proposed program will ultimately look like are Miami-Dade’s Public Defender’s office, the Clerk of Court’s office, and the 11th Judicial Circuit Courts. 

“We need to have a website, all the language needs to be consistent from each of the players involved in the process so there is no confusion,” said Fernandez-Rundle. “It’s really logistical discussions that we’re having at this point.”

An estimated launch date for the project is for around Labor Day, which would still give people the chance to register to vote before municipal elections in November.

“Hopefully once it’s active, this can become a kind of template for other parts of the state,” she said. “That way we’d have more continuity about how this is being implemented across the state, which is something we are very concerned about.”

Copyright 2019 WLRN 91.3 FM

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.