The recent Federal Appeals Court decision on Amendment 4 reinstating the payment of court fees and costs in order to have one’s voting privileges restored has many people wondering, “What is Next”? While everyone understands the desire to make their vote count in the upcoming November presidential election, not every returning citizen will be able to complete their sentences in time. For some, this prospect may seem deflating. However, earning back the right to vote is more than a one-time opportunity. Working to better one’s community, which is what our vote truly allows us to do, is a long-term full-time endeavor.
Supporting the efforts of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), to pay the fines and fees of a criminal conviction, is certainly an accessible way to open the door to the voting booth. Well-known individuals are contributing to the FRCC’s work. Those names include: basketball stars LeBron James and Michael Jordan; entertainer and singing star John Legend; movie director Stephen Spielberg; sports team like the Miami Dolphins, the Orlando Magic, and the Miami Heat; cable entities like MTV, Comedy Central, VH1, and corporations like Ben & Jerry’s and Levi Strauss & Company.
While the recent FRRC presentation of $7 million to Miami-Dade courts for fees and costs a couple weeks ago was an important helping-hand for our returning citizens, it also was a contribution to the safety and improvement of our Miami-Dade community. Desmond Meade and I both saw this presentation as a promise of greater safety because it helps reintegrate returning citizens into our community, rather than continuing to ostracize them. As the Miami-Dade Grand Jury recognized, research shows that returning citizens whose civil rights are restored reoffend at a lower rate than those whose rights are not restored. Simply put, returning citizens who are welcomed back into society commit fewer crimes and fewer crimes translate into less tax money spent on jails and prisons. That is Smart Justice.
The $7 million also added funds to criminal justice budgets that are being stretched by the ravages of Covid-19 at no expense to taxpayers. It also provided much needed cash to Florida’s victim compensation fund which helps reimburse crime victims for the damages they may have suffered.
I and Miami-Dade’s criminal justice partners devised a process to help returning citizens back into the heart of our communities in 2019. Criminal Court judges can alter existing financial penalties which were a part of the original sentences for returning citizens who lack the ability to pay them without waiving the restitution owed to crime victims.
Returning citizens can initiate the process by contacting the FRRC, the Public Defender’s Office, or other volunteer lawyers, each of whom are working with our team of attorneys to facilitate sentence modifications when appropriate. The volunteer lawyers are extremely helpful because returning citizens need to obtain records and file an affidavit of indigency. Our model has been so effective that it was adopted by other Florida communities seeking to make the promise of Amendment 4 a tangible reality.
We know that a well-functioning democracy depends on its citizens having the right and opportunity to vote. There are many important elective decisions made throughout Miami-Dade County at various levels of government. Every vote in the process is a contribution to our community. Our returning citizens should hold fast to their dreams of making their communities better. For some, the opportunity to vote may have been delayed but it does not have to be denied.