Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos J. Martinez talked about the implications of Amendment 4 Thursday evening at the Caribbean Bar Association’s 9th annual Diversity Symposium.
The amendment, passed last year, provides former felons the ability to regain their voting rights after completion of their sentences. However, state legislators quickly passed a law that required such people to pay off any court fees or fines first. Critics of this requirement claim it is effectively a “poll tax,” aimed at keeping the poor and people of color from voting.
Both the state attorney and public defender expressed dismay at the state Supreme Court’s recent opinion that sided with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ interpretation of the requirement, saying they have a different idea of what “completion of sentence” means.
In the eyes of Rundle and Martinez, a sentence consists of prison time and/or community service, restitution to victims and probation. Nothing more and nothing less.
“The question became ‘well what is completion of a sentence?’ Even for people in criminal court we had never dealt with the issue of is the sentence is completed, we just know it is. You finish your time in jail, finish your probation, you’re finished,” said Martinez.
Rundle agreed, but added restitution is also important.
“We’re going to say that if you can pay, you should pay. But if you can’t pay then tell us you can’t and let’s see if we can work out a payment and if that doesn’t work you fill out an affidavit and the courts can modify the sentence,” she said.
Martinez said judges in Miami-Dade County can now modify any aspect of a sentence, including fees and fines.
Similar measures have been initiated in Hillsborough and Broward counties.
This waiver process arose from a deal between the Florida House and Senate, giving other options to people who want their voting rights back but are unable to pay. Under the law, a judge can waive the fees or convert them into community service. Though the bill was introduced by a Republican, only Democratic-leaning counties have taken advantage of the new law so far.
Another topic of discussion involved voter fraud. Rundle said that there’s little evidence it is a widespread issue, though she acknowledged it does exist.
She recalled an incident in 1998 where she dealt with a large amount of fraudulent votes during an election in Miami involving absentee ballots.
“That’s the only one I can even think of that has happened in the history of this community,” said Rundle.