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Controversial felons’ rights plan clears Senate

“We have sought mercy over sacrifice.”

An attempt to define how felons may qualify to vote under Amendment 4 was stripped from one bill and amended to another elections-related one Thursday.

The Senate then approved 22-17 the package of voting reforms and felon voting rights restoration in a vote split along party lines. Republican Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami did not vote. The bill now goes back to the House.

In tacking the basics from SB 7086, dealing with Amendment 4, into Senate Bill 7066, providing a broader package of elections and voting reforms, Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes told the chamber the deal was worked out with the Florida House, and the new package reflected what the House wants.

The amendment Brandes offered essentially is the House version of the measure, approved Wednesday.

It defines what it takes for felons to meet the Amendment 4 standard of completing their felony sentences. And those standards would include all financial obligations ordered as part of sentencing. The bill also clarifies the two exceptions that would still prohibit voting rights: convictions of murder or felony sexual offenses.

“I think we have reached a point where we all feel consensus with the definition of ‘all terms of the sentence,’ ” Brandes, of St. Petersburg, said.

The split reflected the issue that has divided the parties of both chambers for months as the bills moved through committees. That’s requirements that felons pay all their financial obligations, including fees, fines and restitution, as part of the completion of sentence.

The constitutional amendment granted restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The proposal, which appeared on the November ballot as Amendment 4, excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”

For weeks, what constitutes “murder,” “felony sexual offense,” and completion of “all terms of their sentence” has caused consternation as Democrats and other supporters of the amendment lashed out at a House version of the bill that sought to require repayment of all fines, fees and restitution for felons to be eligible for the rights restoration.

It addresses the voting rights restoration amendment that Florida voters added to the state constitution by a 64.5 to 35.5 approval in November.

And it addresses the requirements for the estimated 1.4 million felons who had lost their rights to vote and expected that had been restored in that election. Many already have registered to vote, a right they received Jan. 8. Some of them might lose the right again if the bill goes into effect July 1.

The measure also brings up the racist ghosts of generations past, recollections that Florida stripped felons of the right to vote in part to disenfranchise huge numbers of African-Americans, and that Florida has been among the slowest of states to remedy that.

That remedy came in November, as backers such as Desmond Meade and his Florida Rights Restoration Coalition convinced Floridians it was time to end decades of denial and offer a road to mercy to those who have paid their debts to society.

Yet that road to mercy has, under SB 7066, some bumps that advocates of voter rights restoration said they did not intend.

Financial obligations often can be far more than felons can pay on the menial jobs many settle for when they complete their terms of prison, probation and parole.

However, the constitutional lawyer whom Amendment 4 backers hired to explain the bill to the Florida Supreme Court, Jon Mills, had acknowledged to the court that financial obligations should be included,

And that led the bill’s Republican backers to declare they have no choice.

That was never the true intention of the amendment, Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson and other Democrats insisted. Restoration was.

“Take the politics out of not forgiving people and not wanting people to vote, and turn that around to wanting people to vote,” she said.

Throughout Thursday evening’s floor discussion, Brandes defended the proposal.

“I think we’re constitutionally bound to include all terms of sentence … and I think via this legislation, we are doing our constitutional obligation to define those undefined terms in the amendment,” he said.

But in closing remarks Brandes expressed some regret.

“You know, my heart is in a different place,” he told the opponents of the bill. “I would love to go further.”

He quoted Jesus from the Bible, saying he desired “mercy over sacrifice.” Brandes said he felt the same.

Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is a former prosecutor, said Brandes and others were “not trying to play games” and were “not trying to keep people from voting.”

“The words that were on the ballot didn’t say parole and probation and that’s it. It said all terms of sentence including probation and parole, which on its face means that that’s part of it, but there’s also more,” Bradley said.

SB 7066 now drops a provision that the Senate had accepted as an amendment earlier, that would allow felons to have court-ordered fees and fines rolled into civil liens, and consider that a completion of sentence.

However it offers a new option: Felons can ask the court to waive or modify financial obligations, or convert them into sentences of community service.

Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, pointed out that Florida is one of a handful of states that do not automatically restore the right to vote to felons who have completed their incarceration.

“All of this about we’re going to restrict it to fees, fines, costs and restitution, when there are 41 states that don’t do that,” Thurston, a lawyer, said.

“We’re not telling you to get rid of the restitution. We’re just saying don’t stand in front of a person’s right to vote … Do the victims in the other 41 states have any less concern?” he said, asking why Florida defendants are treated differently. “Or do we want to say, here we go again, Flori-duh.”

Thurston tried to re-establish the civil-lien option, and expand it to include restitution that felons are ordered to pay victims. But that amendment went down on a voice vote, likely along the same party lines.

The restitution provision is one that has deeply bothered many of the backers of Amendment 4 and Democrats in the Florida Legislature, as it can be huge amounts that are not payable by felons living on low wages.

Many restitution orders are converted to payment plans with civil liens. And many opponents of the bill argued that should be enough to satisfy the “terms of sentence” requirement.

But Republicans reminded the chamber that for every felon there is at least one victim, and victims’ rights must not be compromised. And that includes getting their money back, if that’s what the judge ordered.

“If they took money from you, if they broke into your house and stole something that’s valuable to you … and they haven’t paid that back, all right, then they have not completed their term of sentence,” said Republican Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa. “They have not paid their obligation.”

The bill also survived a point-of-order challenge from Democratic Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, who argued that the rights restoration issue was not germane to the elections reform bill to which it was being amended.

Rules Committee Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers ruled against him.

Brandes suggested that more reforms might be expected in the future. Gibson and several other Democrats agreed, hoping more will be done to restore rights, including the possibility of revisiting civil liens to satisfy the requirement that all terms of sentence be fulfilled.

“We can do more. We can do more. So I encourage us that when we come back next year, or years following, that we do more to help integrate these people back into society,” said Democratic Sen. Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens.

Ominously, Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo of Miami said the limits on restoration of voter rights spelled out in the bill certainly would be challenged in court. He might know: He’s a former Assistant State Attorney for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

The House sponsor of the proposal, Tampa Republican James Grant, was in the Senate chamber during much of the debate. He told reporters he would have preferred that “policy this big” was handled in a stand-alone bill. The House will have to vote on the bill Friday because lawmakers are only expected to deal with budget issues Saturday, the final day of the session.

“But as we said from day one, the worst possible outcome for the affected class is no bill. We have to have one. Folks looking to have their rights restored pursuant to Amendment 4 without a bill are going to see their restoration significantly slowed, inconsistently applied. It would just be a disaster,” he said.

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The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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