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Hillsborough County to restore voting rights to felons who can’t afford to pay fines

The poll tax debate continues.

The Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office will hear from ten residents Tuesday morning to regain their right to vote.

The residents are felons who served their time but can’t afford to pay fines and court costs, repayments required under a 2019 law implementing Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to nonviolent felons who had completed their sentences.

The fee requirement was largely struck down in federal court last week, prompting the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s office to establish a “Voting Rights Docket” to restore rights to those who have been waiting since the 2018 constitutional amendment went into effect.

The first docket will be presented at 3:30 p.m. at the Hillsborough County Courthouse to Judge Catherine M. Catlin.

“The idea that Amendment 4 only applies to people who can afford it is unfair, unacceptable, and un-American,” Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren said. “It’s wrong to deny people the right to vote based on how much money they have. We can’t have two classes of citizens: those who can afford the right to vote and those who can’t.”

The ten returning citizens appearing in court Tuesday have completed all of their prison and probation terms, but can’t afford to pay remaining fees associated with their sentences, a debt prohibiting them from restoring their right to vote. Catlin will review their indigent claims to remove the roadblock.

The hearing will be the first of its kind in Florida.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt’s office have already reviewed the returning citizens’ cases. Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank will record the cases.

The ten individuals with hearings Tuesday are just the beginning. Hillsborough officials estimate that as many as 116,000 residents may be eligible to have their rights restored.

“The goal we all share for people who’ve served their time is for them to successfully reenter society. Research shows returning citizens are less likely to reoffend when they are able to vote. Tuesday’s Voting Rights Docket strengthens democracy and makes our community safer,” Warren said.

While the hearing will likely allow returning citizens to restore their right to vote without satisfying court fees and other costs associated with their crimes, debts will not disappear. Money will still be owed to the court system, but after Tuesday, it will no longer be a barrier to voting.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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