Controversial felons' rights plan clears Senate

Seeking to carry out a November constitutional amendment, the Florida Senate on Thursday passed a measure that would require repayment of financial obligations before felons’ voting rights could be restored, an issue that’s been a sticking point as lawmakers grappled with one of this year’s most controversial pieces of legislation.

The Senate spent about two hours in emotional debate on the measure before voting strictly along party lines and sending the proposal to the House for consideration Friday, the final day it can pass before the legislative session ends.

The constitutional amendment granted restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The proposal, which appeared on the November ballot as Amendment 4, excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”

For weeks, what constitutes “murder,” “felony sexual offense,” and completion of “all terms of their sentence” has caused consternation as Democrats and other supporters of the amendment lashed out at a House version of the bill that sought to require repayment of all fines, fees and restitution for felons to be eligible for the rights restoration.

The House passed the bill last week after heavy debate and sent it to the Senate. But because of procedural issues, the Senate on Thursday amended an election-related measure to include many of the provisions in the House bill.

The most controversial feature of the proposal (SB 7066) deals with the financial obligations that felons would be required to pay to be eligible to vote. Under the plan, felons would have to repay all restitution and would also have to pay all fees and fines ordered by the court, not including “any fines, fees, or costs that accrue after the date the obligation is ordered as part of the sentence.”

The financial obligations would be considered completed if they are paid in full, if a victim or the court “forgives” the restitution, or if a judge allows felons to serve community service in lieu of payment.

Democrats have argued that the financial requirements hearken back to Jim Crow-era policies designed to keep blacks from voting, while supporters of the Senate’s plan --- which mirrors the House bill’s financial obligations language --- maintain it complies with the amendment.

But the plan the Senate approved Thursday in a 22-17 vote contained much harsher provisions than earlier versions proposed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has long been an advocate for criminal justice reform.

Throughout Thursday evening’s floor discussion, Brandes defended the proposal.

“I think we’re constitutionally bound to include all terms of sentence … and I think via this legislation, we are doing our constitutional obligation to define those undefined terms in the amendment,” he said.

But in closing remarks, Brandes appeared almost apologetic.

“Obviously, you know my heart is in a different place and would love to go farther,” the soft-spoken Republican said. “I have gone as far as I can, as far as this bicameral process will let us go, to seek mercy over sacrifice.”

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said he believes most of the more than 5 million voters who supported the amendment thought that felons would be able to get their voting rights back when they were released from prison or jail.

“The truth is, there are people that have paid their debt to society and are paying the debt to those that they owe. We’re not asking you to not have them pay their debt to society,” Braynon, who is black, said. “This is not the criminal reform justice bill. This is about them having the ability to be part of society and vote.”

But Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is a former prosecutor, said Brandes and others were “not trying to play games” and were “not trying to keep people from voting.”

“The words that were on the ballot didn’t say parole and probation and that’s it. It said all terms of sentence including probation and parole, which on its face means that that’s part of it, but there’s also more,” Bradley said.

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, pointed out that Florida is one of a handful of states that do not automatically restore the right to vote to felons who have completed their incarceration.

“All of this about we’re going to restrict it to fees, fines, costs and restitution, when there are 41 states that don’t do that,” Thurston, a lawyer, said.

Recounting Florida’s recent history of making it more difficult for felons to have rights restored, Thurston “we’re here kicking and screaming” about rights restoration.

“We’re not telling you to get rid of the restitution. We’re just saying don’t stand in front of a person’s right to vote … Do the victims in the other 41 states have any less concern?” he said, asking why Florida defendants are treated differently. “Or do we want to say, here we go again, Flori-duh.”

His amendment failed on a voice vote.

Desmond Meade, a “returning citizen” who is president of one of the political committees behind Amendment 4 watched from the gallery during Thursday’s floor action.

“The bill has cleared the Senate, and we’re hopeful continued discussions with legislators will result in a finished product that is closer to the spirit of Amendment 4,” Meade said in a text message.

The House sponsor of the proposal, Tampa Republican James Grant, was in the Senate chamber during much of the debate. He told reporters he would have preferred that “policy this big” was handled in a stand-alone bill. The House will have to vote on the bill Friday because lawmakers are only expected to deal with budget issues Saturday, the final day of the session.

“But as we said from day one, the worst possible outcome for the affected class is no bill. We have to have one. Folks looking to have their rights restored pursuant to Amendment 4 without a bill are going to see their restoration significantly slowed, inconsistently applied. It would just be a disaster,” he said.