Florida will need to ensure the voting rights of all citizens in the state, including those convicted of felonies, regardless of how a United States federal court rules in a trial that begins on April 27, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today.
The trial in Jones v. DeSantis will be conducted by phone in the US district court for the Northern District of Florida. It will decide whether and how people with former felony convictions whose voting rights were restored in an amendment to the state constitution passed in 2018 will have to pay restitution, fines, and fees assessed by Florida’s courts before they can vote. The ruling could result in a process for voters to resolve the fines and fees issue, enabling registration and voting. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., and the Brennan Center for Justice, among others. The state of Florida is defending the case.
“There should be absolutely no requirement to pay the government to exercise the right to vote in the state of Florida, or anywhere in the world,” said Alison Leal Parker, managing director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “Florida’s citizens are struggling to pay restitution, fines, and fees because of poverty, bureaucratic confusion, or both. Now more than ever, Florida needs to make it easy in every way for citizens to exercise their basic voting rights.”
The constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, lifted a voting ban on approximately 1.4 million Florida citizens with felony convictions – except for murder or sex offenses – who had completed their criminal sentences. In a subsequent law enacted in June 2019, SB 7066, Florida required these same citizens, known as “returning citizens,” to pay all of their legal financial obligations – or “LFOs,” comprising restitution, fines, and fees – before they could vote.
Both Florida’s original disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions who had completed their sentences and the 2019 statute requiring this payment violate international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. As early as 1998, in a joint report with the Sentencing Project, Human Rights Watch stated that felony disenfranchisement after a sentence was completed, especially for a broad category of offenses like all felonies, violates article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a human rights treaty to which the US is a party.
Further, requiring people to pay fines, fees, and restitution violates that treaty’s requirement not to subject the right to vote to a “distinction of any kind, such as … race … property, birth or other status.” Whether or not a person can afford these fees, the requirement to pay before voting is unreasonable as it amounts to a de facto restriction on the right to vote based on property requirements. It’s also inconsistent with the state’s obligations to take effective measures to ensure that everyone entitled to vote can do so.
Florida’s Black citizens and those who were children at the time of their offense present particular rights concerns. According to the Sentencing Project, as of 2016, 21 percent of Florida’s Black voting age population was disenfranchised due to felony convictions. Also, a subset of those with felony convictions in Florida are people who were under age 18 when they were prosecuted as adults under Florida’s “direct file statute,” in violation of children’s human rights. These children, now adults, often lost the right to vote before they even reached voting age.
Some Florida citizens who should have been enfranchised by Amendment 4 cannot afford the restitution, fines, and fees they owe. It also has been difficult for them to navigate Florida’s system to determine if they owe anything, and if they do, how to pay. One expert involved in voter registration interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that the state faces “an administrative nightmare for returning citizens. There is so much confusion. People want to know, ‘is it okay to register?’ There is a lot of fear and confusion over if you’re going to get into trouble. It’s frankly a mess.”
According to a November 2019 official report, published after hearings on implementing SB 7066, Ken Burke, the Circuit Court clerk for Pinellas County, “confirmed that the system is not yet in place where the citizen could obtain information from one Clerk of Court about all counties or circuits.” This means that potential voters with restitution, fines, and fees records originating in more than one Florida county face almost insurmountable hurdles to comply with the law under consideration in the April 27 trial.
Another practical problem is that some of the fines and fees are held by private corporations, a practice that Human Rights Watch reported on in its 2018 report ‘Set Up To Fail.’ Private businesses have no incentive to facilitate payment of debts that would allow people to regain the right to vote, Human Rights Watch said.
Another expert involved in voter registration told Human Rights Watch that some fees “weren’t paid in the courthouse and citizens weren’t given a receipt. Sometimes their payments were given to a third-party business. There is often inadequate record of payment. That system of records was never intended to determine if a person could vote or not vote.”
The Covid-19 pandemic adds an extraordinary set of hurdles to this state of confusion, Human Rights Watch said. The Jones trial is being held over the phone because courts have been closed for non-essential services in light of the public health emergency. For those same reasons, returning citizens will struggle to get help or information from the courts and other offices are unlikely to be open to take payments.
“Already some Florida citizens were too poor to pay restitution, fines, and fees, already they struggled with poor state record keeping to determine what they owed and to whom, and already their human right to vote was under threat in Florida,” Parker said. “Now, Covid-19 is exacerbating all of these problems.”