By now, many of us have heard the news about Amendment Four, aka the constitutional amendment that restores voting rights to ex-felons. What I really want to write is: that restores voting rights to people, in an effort to humanize people with felony convictions. So I’m going go with that — restores voting rights to people.
The Florida Supreme Court sided with a GOP-backed bill that deems “all terms of sentence” to include fines, fees, and court costs. I once heard a clerk describe the criminal justice system as a “pay to play” system, and nothing could be more true. It’s a point of interest for me that even if a judge doesn’t impose a punitive fine or there is no restitution to be paid to the victim, the criminal defendant will always get stuck with court costs.
You can read the full advisory opinion here. It is an instructive opinion if you want to learn about statutory construction, which can be one of the most tedious and elegant parts of practicing law. My law review tryout was based on an exercise in statutory construction and it brought me to literal tears, but I believe it can be summarized as follows: “if it looks like a duck, and swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck.” Basically, the plain language controls; if it’s ambiguous, break out the fancy latin phrases.
Although the Florida Supreme Court has spoken on this issue, The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups will continue litigation in federal court. The ACLU and others argue the requirement to pay back fines, fees and costs amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax. Per their press release:
Florida cannot violate the U.S. Constitution’s protections. The right to vote cannot be contingent on the ability to pay. We will continue fighting in federal court for our clients and the hundreds of thousands of Floridians’ voting rights that SB7066 seeks to unconstitutionally and permanently eliminate.
My firm belief is that litigation has its rightful place in the justice toolbox. It is vital that courts determine federal constitutional questions. Ours is a system of checks and balances, and the role of courts is important in protecting freedom.
At the same time (not in opposition to), I also believe we must remain vigilant as citizens of a democracy. We cannot rely solely on courts to protect our freedom. In a way, I think we (myself included) can get kind of lazy about it because we know the Professional Activists will handle it. So here are four suggestions to support the restoration of voting rights to people:
1. Help Florida’s Returning Citizens Pay Fines & Fees
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is fundraising to help returning citizens pay back their fees and costs. Every bit counts. Your donation is tax deductible. Simply put — I work hard for my money and it is really hard to give it away, but I believe in putting my money where my mouth is and I just donated prior to posting.
2. Speaking of the FRRC, Sign Up to Volunteer
You can canvas, make calls, or volunteer at an event. I have on many occasions been that annoying person with a clipboard and I promise you that if my shy, introverted self can do it, you can too. Sign up here.
3. Stay Engaged – Subscribe to a Criminal Justice Newsletter
Out of sight, out of mind, right? When human beings are incarcerated or disenfranchised it’s easy to ignore them. Put your hear to the underground and stay conscious of ongoing issues involving criminal justice. My personal go-to is the Marshall Project’s Newsletter; you can subscribe here. For my fellow podcast people, I’m a big fan of Life Inside.
4. Find an Organization That Utilizes Your Gifts
So far I’ve proposed some one-size fits all avenues, but I want to challenge you, dear reader, to use your gifts and find a way to lift others up. For me, I am a person who is not bothered by jail and I am a woman of sincere faith, so my most recent endeavor is volunteering with a jail ministry to be there for women inside. Maybe you don’t want to canvas and gather signatures for a petition, but you are really good at soccer. Find an after-school program with a consciousness of the school-to-prison pipeline! Ya know what I mean? Use your noggin, use your gifts, find an organization or activity that calls to you.