State Politics

DeSantis: Non-violent felons should get more than just voting rights restored

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday he’s willing to use his powers as governor to grant potentially tens of thousands of nonviolent felons the ability to serve on juries and run for office.

DeSantis said that as leader of the state’s Board of Clemency, he would be “comfortable” changing the clemency rules to expand nonviolent felons’ civil rights well beyond the right to vote, which Floridians granted last year with the passage of Amendment 4.

“I think we should have a streamlined process where you can restore the right to be on a jury and restore the right to serve in office” after felons finish their sentence, DeSantis said.

The governor wondered why Amendment 4, which nearly two-thirds of Florida voters approved in 2018, didn’t go beyond voting.

“It was interesting,” he said. “Why would that not have been a part of this initially? I don’t know. But I’m comfortable doing that. But it would be for nonviolent [felons]. I’m not comfortable to do a blanket for violent felons.”

DeSantis did not say when the clemency board would take up the issue. The board meets four times per year, with its next meeting scheduled for December.

The governor’s comments were praised by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the effort to get Amendment 4 before voters last year.

“We have always maintained a laser focus on the real lives of returning citizens and look forward to working with the governor and others to open up pathways for returning citizens to fully participate in society,” Neil Volz, the coalition’s deputy director, said in a statement.

When Floridians are convicted of a felony, they lose the right to vote, serve on a jury, run for office and possess a firearm. Amendment 4, which DeSantis opposed, restored the right to vote to more than 1 million felons, as long as they weren’t convicted of murder or sex offenses, and as long as they completed “all terms” of their sentence.

The Legislature this year passed a bill defining “all terms” to include the payment of court-ordered fees, fines and restitution to victims, which prompted critics to call it a “poll tax.” Supporters of Amendment 4 also said “all terms” included financial obligations.

The governor’s comments were the first since U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said state officials created an “administrative nightmare” with the new legislation, and he wrote that Florida needs to come up with a way for poor felons to vote.

Currently, there is no simple way for felons to even find out whether they owe court fees. Some courts don’t have records before 1990, for example, and no one in the state tracks payment of restitution.

Republican lawmakers are already working on a fix to consider in the 2020 session, which could include the creation of a state database for felons and others to easily find out if they’re eligible to vote.

“I think if we can get some more resources, then we can be in a position to maybe streamline this so it works a little bit better,” DeSantis said. “But we would need, I think, the Legislature to provide us the resources. I mean, we just didn’t get it in this last year.”

Hinkle, citing an 11th Circuit Court opinion, said that poor felons should not be kept from voting simply because they can’t afford to pay back their financial obligations.

“Florida ... cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources to pay the other financial obligations,” Hinkle wrote.

DeSantis noted that Amendment 4 did not say anything about felons being too poor to pay back their obligations. The Legislature, however, added in its bill two ways for felons to seek relief: by getting a judge to convert the dollars into community service hours or by getting a judge to waive the obligations outright, as long as the person or entity that is owed the money is OK with it.

But there is currently no standard process for petitioning judges. DeSantis said he’s willing to work with the Legislature to change the legislation.

“I’m obviously willing to do what makes the most sense,” he said. “My goal would be, let’s just get it right and just move on, rather than continue to litigate it.”

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