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Coral Nichols: Redemption or lifelong punishment — getting Amendment 4 right

Is there not a way to reason with one another?

Allowing someone a voice, allowing someone to vote, says that we believe they belong, they matter. In the case of formerly incarcerated people, that they have been rehabilitated.

Amendment 4 won 64.55 percent of the vote in November because people saw it as a way to better our communities, to bring about restoration of individuals and families. Our judicial system and legislative bodies throw around words and phrases like “redemption,” “restoration” and “second chances.”

We use these words so carelessly that they have lost their weight in the debate regarding Amendment 4.

How can we use the words redemption and rehabilitation and then say that you don’t get to vote if you can’t pay fines and court costs resulting from your conviction?  That’s what legislation currently before Florida lawmakers says – that you can’t vote until you pay, despite the fact that your prison sentence and probation is complete.

That legislation seeks to stifle the voices of 1.4 million Floridians who are disenfranchised, but also of more than 5 million voters in Florida who supported Amendment 4. Both the House and Senate bills are about those that can pay money and those that cannot pay.

If you can pay back sometimes astronomical amounts of restitution, plus fines and court costs, you get your ability to vote restored to you.

If you don’t have the money, you can’t vote.

I am one of those who will be denied the right to vote.

I was sentenced as a first-time convicted felon to five years in the Florida State Prison, followed by 10 years of probation, plus $190,000 in restitution. The prison and probation time have been completed, without a violation. I work daily to better my community and the citizens in it. I try daily to teach those who are currently before the judicial system, so that they can make better choices and become law-abiding citizens.

However, I will not be able to vote because I simply don’t have the money to pay the debt off in full. I still owe $188,888 of a civil lien, which I am working to pay down.

Who in the Florida Legislature will get to their feet and defend the voice of 5 million people who said they believe in second chances?

Will the voices of those who have worked hard to turn their lives around ever be heard?  I believe we can get this right; we can erase our political differences and act as one people.

Is there not a way to reason with one another?

The bottom line is that certain legislators care more about punishment than they do about redemption. We must get beyond lifelong punishment and move into a real definition of Justice, which simply means what is fair, what is right, what is just.

Can we all ask ourselves, “What is right in this situation?

How do we bring justice and redemption and begin to really change our communities?”

The answer, I believe, begins with the voice of the vote.

___

Coral Nichols is co-founder and vice president of Empowered to Change International, Inc.

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