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Miami Officials: Most People Who Owe Fines and Fees Can Vote

Lawyers and advocates in Miami-Dade County will roll out a new plan to counter the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty images.

A coalition of powerful players in Miami-Dade County’s legal system is coming together on Monday to claim that the vast majority of people with a felony conviction in the county are likely to be able to register to vote, even if they still owe court fines and fees. And the group, which includes the county’s top prosecutor and public defender, has a plan to help the potential voters.

The Miami-Dade County state attorney, public defender, and voting advocates will argue that a new state law, which requires Floridians with felony convictions to pay off fines and fees associated with their sentence before they can vote, actually leaves room for most of the affected people to vote without paying the fines and fees. This coalition plans to begin acting upon its interpretation of the law, which would clear a major barrier for people looking to vote.

Florida Republicans passed the fines and fees bill in May in response to the passage of Amendment 4, a voter-approved state constitutional amendment that restored people’s right to vote upon completion of their sentence. When Governor Ron DeSantis signed it into law, many advocates argued that the legislation amounts to a “poll tax” and an attempt to undermine Amendment 4.

One study found that in Miami-Dade County alone, people with felony convictions owe a combined $278 million in court fines and fees. This would be a near-insurmountable barrier for many if they had to pay it off before registering to vote. But officials in Miami-Dade, which includes more than a tenth of the state’s population, are confident they can mitigate the law’s impact.

Multiple officials told The Appeal there is a shared understanding among the public defender’s office, the county’s prosecutors, and the chief judge that only the fines and fees included on an individual’s sentencing document must be paid before he or she is eligible to register to vote. They say most fines and fees are included in separate judgments and court orders, and that those do not need to be paid to regain one’s civil rights.

Carlos Martinez, the elected public defender in Miami-Dade, said he estimates that financial obligations are not listed on the sentencing documents for 90 percent of people with outstanding fines and fees in the county.

“People were looking at the high number and amount of fees, fines, and costs that are assessed in Florida, and they were thinking that every person that wants their rights restored has to pay their fees, fines, and costs,” Martinez said. “And the reality is that if they’re not in the four corners of the sentence document, they don’t have to be paid for completion of the sentence. Individuals are still required to pay fines, fees, and costs because there is a court order, but the requirement of such payment is not part of the completion of sentence definition that the legislature created in the statute.

“The financial obligation is independent from the rights restoration process,” he added.

Ed Griffith, a spokesperson for the state attorney’s office, told The Appeal that his office is working under this interpretation of the law, which is being advocated for by officials in this largely Democratic county to keep the Republican-led disenfranchisement efforts at bay.

“State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and the involved stakeholders have developed a plan according to which only those outstanding fines specifically articulated by the judge and contained in the sentencing document can stop rights restoration,” Griffith said in an email. “This is in accordance with the … statute enacted by the Florida Legislature.”

In cases where fines or fees do appear in the sentencing document, a judge still has the option to convert those obligations into community service or to declare that they do not stop a person from registering to vote, Martinez said. But Miami-Dade officials remained vague about how they will help people who do have fines and fees listed in their sentencing documents.

The group’s commitment to this interpretation is a result of conversations between the state attorney, public defender, chief judge, and clerk of courts in Miami and the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), the group that pushed for the passage of Amendment 4. They wanted a quick pathway to restoring the voting rights of those who still may owe fines and fees.

“We’ve always stated, even when the governor signed the bill, that when other people see obstacles, we see opportunities,” Desmond Meade, executive director of FRRC, told The Appeal. “We’re going to operate under the letter of the law, and we’re excited about this opportunity.”

But it is not a comprehensive fix. This new process will not apply to people who were convicted of crimes outside Miami-Dade, even if they are current residents of the county. It will also not apply to anyone who owes restitution, money paid to the victim of a crime, as part of their sentence.

In addition, the state attorney’s office and public defender’s office have no current plan to proactively identify people who are eligible to have their rights restored immediately and to process their cases, which will limit the plan’s scope. That work will fall on FRRC. Meade said that FRRC will help identify people who are eligible to vote in Miami-Dade, and that the legislation “gave us an opportunity to engage returning citizens.”

“There is going to be a media campaign, through social media and through other means, to get the word out so that people do know that they can reach out and that we can try to get their process done,” Martinez said, adding that public authorities are cooperating with FRRC to reach out to potential voters.

Still, Miami-Dade’s system could be a model for similarly urban, more progressive counties in Florida. Griffith told The Appeal that the office has “been in consultation with the state attorney in Palm Beach County and in other judicial circuits to attempt to create a multi-jurisdictional process that is uniform.” The offices of the state attorneys in Broward, Hillsborough, and Palm Beach counties confirmed their interest in a process that would get as many people voting as possible. Nearly 10 million Floridians, about 46 percent of the state population, are represented by a Democratic state attorney, according to Daily Kos Elections.

Paula McMahon, spokesperson for the state attorney’s office in Broward County, told The Appeal those conversations are ongoing. “We believe that people should be able to vote and that it is a very important right,” she said. “Court fines should not get in the way of voting. We have been discussing this issue with members of the community for some time and we have been talking with other prosecutors in Florida to come up with a fair and consistent proposal.”

Voting advocates are calling on other counties to follow Miami-Dade’s lead. A number of voting- and civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Campaign Legal Center, have also challenged Florida’s new law in court, with four separate lawsuits claiming it is unconstitutional and will disenfranchise poor people of color.

Last week, The Intercept and local news outlets reported that Miami was considering a more ambitious, but potentially more burdensome, plan to assist people in clearing their fines and fees. Andrew Warren, state attorney in Hillsborough County, told The Appeal that he is also considering setting up a “rocket docket” where large numbers of people could appear before a judge to have their fines and fees rapidly converted.

Unlike those proposals, Miami-Dade’s new process will not, in most cases, relieve people of the other consequences associated with unpaid fines and fees, including driver’s license suspensions. Florida law requires license revocation for nonpayment, and according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the state has issued approximately 1.1 million suspensions for  fines and fees.

“The state’s law exposes a crisis that we face in many communities across the country—the resurgence of debtors’ prisons,” Kristen Clarke, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told The Appeal. “Poor people should not remain trapped in the criminal justice system because of their inability to pay fines and fees, nor should they remain disenfranchised.”