A Florida House panel this week approved a bill requiring ex-criminals to pay fines and fines before their voting rights are restored, prompting criticism from those who say it would undermine a new law. amendment allowing more than one million former electors to vote.
Proponents of the bill, approved Tuesday by the House of Commons Criminal Justice Subcommittee, controlled by Republicans, claim that it is simply intended to resolve issues relating to the implementation of the bill. Amendment 4 approved by voters in November.
But advocates argue that the bill would unfairly punish those unable to pay and compromise the central purpose of the amendment, which is to put an end to permanent disenchantment.
"This bill goes against exactly what two-thirds of Florida voters said very clearly," said Sean Morales-Doyle, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.
Since the amendment came into force in January, it has caused some confusion. It did not apply to persons convicted of murder or sexual offenses and there were questions as to which crimes to count in those categories.
The financial question is more controversial: would criminals have to pay for their sentence to be declared "over"?
The bill, which would also clarify the offenses concerned, was adopted by a subcommittee by 10 votes to 5, divided into groups, with the Democrats opposed.
The financial question has led a Democratic opponent of the bill, the representative Adam Hattersley, to call it a "manifestly unconstitutional vote tax," a reference to the fees used to prevent African Americans from voting in the South from years 1890. (African-Americans are disproportionately affected by the denial of the felon's right to vote, although the majority of Floridians with felony convictions are Caucasian.)
Representative James Grant, a Republican and the subcommittee chair, who sponsored the bill, challenged this characterization, claiming that it "mitigated the atrocity of what is actually a voting tax, "reported the Miami Herald. Mr. Grant did not immediately respond to a call for comments on Wednesday.
Mr. Grant stated that the purpose of the bill is to establish a uniform set of criteria to determine who is legally entitled to vote and that the wording reflects what the lawyers said while explaining the wording of the vote question to the Supreme Court of the State.
Politico reported Tuesday that the measure had to move easily in the House and that the Senate was preparing its own bill containing "guidance" on how the amendment should be implemented. Both rooms are controlled by Republicans. Governor Ron DeSantis, also Republican, opposed the amendment and expressed support for legislation on its implementation.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the fight for the amendment, opposed the bill because it would broaden the definition of "completion of the sentence" beyond what had already been established by the State leniency committee, among other concerns.
"We hope that improvements can be made to this bill, which will ensure bipartisan support before its passage to the next committee," Desmond Meade, chairman of the coalition, said in a statement.
"Amendment 4 has been adopted with the broad support of people from all walks of life and from all walks of life," he said. "Any proposed legislation should neither limit the rights created by Amendment 4 nor violate the will of Florida voters."
The case is particularly pernicious in Florida because of the state's strict rules on fines and fees, said Ashley Thomas, director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a non-profit justice center in Florida.
Almost no waiver is given to the needy, she said. Fines and fees can increase quickly with late penalties, and can be sent to private collection agencies that add their own heavy surcharges. A The Brennan Center's 2010 report on the use of fees by the Florida court system indicated that observers had coined the term "cash justice".
Julie Ebenstein, a lawyer with the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the bill "really unscathed from the text of the amendment."
"This will deprive citizens of their rights who can not afford to pay all these obligations," she said.
Brennan Center and A.C.L.U. acted as consultants to the coalition when drafting amendment 4, they said.
Phil Telfeyan, executive director of the non-profit Equal Justice Under Law, which focuses on economic discrimination, said his organization was considering filing a lawsuit to challenge the bill. from Florida.
Those recently released from prison often face significant financial difficulties, having left the labor market and having to rebuild their lives, he noted.
"The legislature is essentially punishing poverty," said Telfeyan.