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Amendment 4 Implementing Bills Progressing Through Florida Legislature

Sandra Averhart

Controversial legislation seeking to clarify how Amendment 4 is carried out continues to move through the Florida House and Senate. The Republican-backed bills are progressing over the objections of those who argue they are not necessary.

The two versions, HB-7089 and SB-7086, each passed their respective Judiciary Committees this week, with split votes along party lines.

Amendment 4, passed by voters in November, clears the way for those convicted of felonies, other than felony sexual offense or murder, to have their voting rights automatically restored upon completion of their sentences. Champions of the initiative have called for implementation - without legislation.

“I think to call this language self-executing is, um, misguided, at best,” said Rep. James Grant, who sponsored the House bill. The Republican from Tampa chairs of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

As the debate continues, one of the main sticking points is what constitutes “completion of sentence,” and whether it goes beyond incarceration, probation and parole to include all criminal financial obligations, such as fines, fees, and restitution, even after converted to a civil matter.

For Grant, the answer is yes, with limited exceptions - or waivers.

“The term of the sentence still originated in the terms of the sentence, so this has nothing to do with civil administration,” Grant said.

“What it does have to do with is the court terminating a sentence, even if the terms were incomplete, a victim under restitution waiving payment, or the Department of Corrections using 948.09 in the [indigence] standards when it comes to fees; all of that is captured by the waiver.”

That means few ways to eliminate criminal debt as a hurdle to completion of sentence.  In an amendment to his bill, Grant offered a waiver for other financial expenses accrued outside the actual sentence.

It covers thing like interest, surcharges, collection charges, and any fees that can add up when an inmate is in prison.

“We think this amendment is a step in the right direction,” said Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which helped sponsor Amendment 4. “And while we fundamentally disagree with the need for legislation, we do want to mention that there is the piece about clarification for post-sentence costs.”

Volz thanked Rep. Grant for fulfilling his pledge to add that particular waiver, but added, “We’re not there yet. We disagree with the notion that administrative costs and court costs should be part of the sentence, because of its impact on people who are trying to exercise these rights; this expansion that 65% of the voters supported.”

Bob Radcliff from the Big Bend Voting Rights Project also opposed the legislation.

“We especially object to the list of financial obligations in this bill that would permanently bar from voting anyone without the ability to pay because they can’t afford to,” said Radcliff. “In the real world, too many of our neighbors don’t earn the money to support their families properly, let alone to comply with this bill. And, with the inclusion in this bill of civil liens, they will never be able to pay.”

Much of the debate from bill opponents in the House centered on how to take the issue of civil liabilities out of the equation, where waivers don’t apply, while still allowing for repayment.

Rep. Joseph Geller, a Democrat from Miami-Dade, is also concerned about and argued for a greater role for the courts in determining sentence completion, rather than leave that verification to the Secretary of State, as provided by the legislation.

“It’s one thing for them to investigate and refer to (election) supervisors; determining where judges stand, and judges should make these decisions, we need a traffic cop,” said Geller, arguing in favor of clerks of court to work with the judges, who should be making those determinations.

Legislation in both bills establish definitions for amendment language such as “completion of all terms of sentence,” as well as terms such “murder,” and “felony sexual offense.”

“Attempted murder” was struck from the Senate version. In the amended House version, a “felony sexual offense” additionally includes sexual misconduct by a psychotherapist with a client, kidnapping a minor with sexual intent or motive, and a second or subsequent offense involving the criminal transmission of HIV. 

Rep. Mike Hill

Republican Rep. Mike Hill of Pensacola, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, applauded the inclusion of what he called the “horrific” crime of female genital mutilation, but added little else to the discussion.

Prior to the meeting, Hill weighed in on the issue of restitution, with a unique perspective as a victim.

“I had money that was stolen from me years ago, and the person is providing restitution checks to me, as we speak,” said Hill. “They come in periodically, but the thing is until he has paid back what he’s stolen then he hasn’t properly completed his sentence and that’s what the House bill does.”

Hill supports the measure.

Although, he’s sympathetic to those returning citizens who may remain excluded from the electorate, when all is said and done, like bill sponsors, he argues the legislation is simply following the language of the amendment.

“I don’t think most people knew that when they were voting for it that it also included restitution of fees and fines that had to be paid for; I don’t think that they recognized that. And, I think if they had, then the outcome may have been different.”

The House measure is now headed for a full vote on the House floor. The Senate plan still has to go before the Rules committee. The 2019 Florida Legislative Session is scheduled to end on May 3.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.