Carmen Brown knows how it feels to not be able to vote because of court fines.
She had her right to vote restored in 2019, 10 years after she completed her last sentence, in which she served one year for a drug conviction. With Amendment 4 passed in 2018 restoring felons’ right to vote, Brown didn’t know that court fines and fees still prevented her from voting until a representative from the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) contacted her.
“I was so excited to be able to go to court and to finally clear this thing up so that I could vote,” Brown said. “I had done my time. I didn’t know that there were other issues going along with that in order for me to obtain my [voting] rights.”
There are hundreds of thousands of Florida felons like Brown who have completed their sentences but cannot afford to pay court fines, fees, costs and restitution. A pilot program in Miami-Dade is trying to help them vote this November, despite a federal appeals court decision made on Sept. 11. On that day the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed a previous federal judge’s ruling that said convicted felons didn’t have to pay outstanding legal obligations before being eligible to vote.
The decision came less than a month away from the voter registration deadline of Oct. 5 for the November election. It affects Florida ex-felons, referred to as returning citizens, who would be able to vote if it weren’t for money owed – debt for which many are often unaware.
Voter restoration, one person at a time
The Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ) and the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office have partnered with the clerk of courts and state attorney’s office to help people with a past felony conviction find out if they can have their sentences modified in court in order to vote. This would not eliminate their debt, but remove it as a requirement to register.
“It’s really important, if you live in Miami-Dade County, to know that Amendment 4 is still the law in Florida, and if you are a person living with a past felony conviction, even if you have a fine or fee, you may be able to register to vote and you should try to find out if you can,” said Subhash Kateel, state director for the ASJ.
The program also works in partnership with the FRRC. Returning citizens can reach out to the organization to verify whether or not they’re eligible to go through the court process. If they are, the FRRC refers them to the public defender’s office.
Carlos J. Martinez, the public defender for Miami-Dade, said the office first checks that the person was previously a public defender client. Then, it verifies the person’s criminal history in the county, confirming that their felony conviction wasn’t for murder or felony sexual offense, which would make them ineligible for sentence modification. A pro bono lawyer from the ASJ or a volunteer attorney in private practice then finds out if the returning citizen is able to pay what they owe.
“If that person cannot afford to pay, and that is the only thing keeping that person from registering to vote, then the free attorney works with that individual, the court and the state’s attorney’s office to modify the original sentence,” said Martinez.
This court process allows a judge to amend the original sentence so that it doesn’t require restitution of court fees prior to voter registration, he added. The individual would still owe the money but receive a court order enabling them to register to vote.
According to Martinez, the federal appeals court reversal decision doesn’t prohibit the process because it complies with the Florida law passed after Amendment 4, which the court considers constitutional.
Returning citizens can still go to the FRRC website or call to request that their cases be reviewed. They can also send an email to the public defender’s office at email@example.com.
If not this election, then the next
Brown wants returning citizens in Miami-Dade to hold onto their hope to vote.
“I want people to know that they do have a chance to vote again,” she said. “I have reached out to several people and I’m going to continue doing that because I want someone else to feel the same joy I felt when I was able to go and vote.”
Brown remembers going to court last fall as a joyous moment of her life, especially because she and her fellow returning citizens were accompanied by singer John Legend. A longtime advocate for criminal justice reform, Legend joined the group on FRRC’s “Amendment 4 Tour” bus on the way to court, and promoted the day’s proceedings on social media through his “Free America” campaign.
The ASJ is now trying to help at least 2,000 returning citizens like Brown so they can register to vote in time for the general election in November, according to Kateel.
The process requires lawyers and judges to review each case, so there’s some concern that people may not make the deadline. Still, Martinez says that shouldn’t discourage people.
“Even if an individual does not make the deadline to register on Oct 5., if somebody wants to have their rights restored, they should nevertheless go through the process so that we can get it done, so they can vote in [the election that] comes after Nov. 3,” said Martinez.
A legal battle that hasn’t dimmed hope
Amendment 4 was passed in 2018 and a legal battle ensued immediately after, including a lawsuit challenging a bill passed by the Republican-led state legislature and approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The law required the payment of all court fines and costs – which help finance the court system – before restoring voting rights.
Voting rights groups argued that the law established an unconstitutional “poll tax’’ while pointing out that it’s troublesome for felons to know how much they owe. A federal judge ruled in their favor back in May, but the appeals court said this month that the plaintiffs didn’t prove how the law was unconstitutional.
This can change if the decision is appealed in the U.S. Supreme Court. However, Martinez said that won’t happen in time for the November election. Court goes back in session in October and it would take time to review the case.
In the meantime, Brown and representatives of the county program are spreading the word that returning citizens could vote this November. She speaks proudly of her grandchildren and the productive life she’s enjoyed after her convictions, and wants others to remember that they can regain their right to vote, too.
“Don’t give up. Always know that there’s a higher power that will bring to pass; that you will be able to vote,” she said. “Just know that, and believe that, because everything is attainable, no matter what it may look like.”
She now works as a part-time chef at Chapman Partnership in Homestead, which provides resources for the homeless. She goes to church and continuously expresses her gratitude for the program.
“I’m so grateful for the team that helped me. I’m even more grateful to John Legend who came to court with me on the day that my rights were restored,” said Brown. “I’m just so grateful for everyone that’s participating and trying to help myself and others to maintain those rights.”