TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) â Seeking to carry out a November constitutional amendment, the Florida Senate on Thursday passed a measure that would require repayment of financial obligations before felonsâ voting rights could be restored, an issue thatâs been a sticking point as lawmakers grappled with one of this yearâs most controversial pieces of legislation.
The Senate spent about two hours in emotional debate on the measure before voting strictly along party lines and sending the proposal to the House for consideration Friday, the final day it can pass before the legislative session ends.READ MORE: Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission Focused On Broward's Troubled 911 Communication System
The constitutional amendment granted restoration of voting rights to felons âwho have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.â The proposal, which appeared on the November ballot as Amendment 4, excluded people âconvicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.â
For weeks, what constitutes âmurder,â âfelony sexual offense,â and completion of âall terms of their sentenceâ has caused consternation as Democrats and other supporters of the amendment lashed out at a House version of the bill that sought to require repayment of all fines, fees and restitution for felons to be eligible for the rights restoration.
The House passed the bill last week after heavy debate and sent it to the Senate. But because of procedural issues, the Senate on Thursday amended an election-related measure to include many of the provisions in the House bill.
The most controversial feature of the proposal (SB 7066) deals with the financial obligations that felons would be required to pay to be eligible to vote. Under the plan, felons would have to repay all restitution and would also have to pay all fees and fines ordered by the court, not including âany fines, fees, or costs that accrue after the date the obligation is ordered as part of the sentence.â
The financial obligations would be considered completed if they are paid in full, if a victim or the court âforgivesâ the restitution, or if a judge allows felons to serve community service in lieu of payment.
Democrats have argued that the financial requirements hearken back to Jim Crow-era policies designed to keep blacks from voting, while supporters of the Senateâs plan — which mirrors the House billâs financial obligations language — maintain it complies with the amendment.
But the plan the Senate approved Thursday in a 22-17 vote contained much harsher provisions than earlier versions proposed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who has long been an advocate for criminal justice reform.
Throughout Thursday eveningâs floor discussion, Brandes defended the proposal.
âI think weâre constitutionally bound to include all terms of sentence â¦ and I think via this legislation, we are doing our constitutional obligation to define those undefined terms in the amendment,â he said.
But in closing remarks, Brandes appeared almost apologetic.
âObviously, you know my heart is in a different place and would love to go farther,â the soft-spoken Republican said. âI have gone as far as I can, as far as this bicameral process will let us go, to seek mercy over sacrifice.â
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said he believes most of the more than 5 million voters who supported the amendment thought that felons would be able to get their voting rights back when they were released from prison or jail.READ MORE: Small Plane Crash In Miramar Sends Two People To The Hospital
âThe truth is, there are people that have paid their debt to society and are paying the debt to those that they owe. Weâre not asking you to not have them pay their debt to society,â Braynon, who is black, said. âThis is not the criminal reform justice bill. This is about them having the ability to be part of society and vote.â
But Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is a former prosecutor, said Brandes and others were ânot trying to play gamesâ and were ânot trying to keep people from voting.â
âThe words that were on the ballot didnât say parole and probation and thatâs it. It said all terms of sentence including probation and parole, which on its face means that thatâs part of it, but thereâs also more,â Bradley said.
Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, pointed out that Florida is one of a handful of states that do not automatically restore the right to vote to felons who have completed their incarceration.
âAll of this about weâre going to restrict it to fees, fines, costs and restitution, when there are 41 states that donât do that,â Thurston, a lawyer, said.
Recounting Floridaâs recent history of making it more difficult for felons to have rights restored, Thurston âweâre here kicking and screamingâ about rights restoration.
âWeâre not telling you to get rid of the restitution. Weâre just saying donât stand in front of a personâs right to vote â¦ Do the victims in the other 41 states have any less concern?â he said, asking why Florida defendants are treated differently. âOr do we want to say, here we go again, Flori-duh.â
His amendment failed on a voice vote.
Desmond Meade, a âreturning citizenâ who is president of one of the political committees behind Amendment 4 watched from the gallery during Thursdayâs floor action.
âThe bill has cleared the Senate, and weâre hopeful continued discussions with legislators will result in a finished product that is closer to the spirit of Amendment 4,â Meade said in a text message.
The House sponsor of the proposal, Tampa Republican James Grant, was in the Senate chamber during much of the debate. He told reporters he would have preferred that âpolicy this bigâ was handled in a stand-alone bill. The House will have to vote on the bill Friday because lawmakers are only expected to deal with budget issues Saturday, the final day of the session.
âBut as we said from day one, the worst possible outcome for the affected class is no bill. We have to have one. Folks looking to have their rights restored pursuant to Amendment 4 without a bill are going to see their restoration significantly slowed, inconsistently applied. It would just be a disaster,â he said.MORE NEWS: Search Resumes For Missing 19-Year-Old Miya Marcano After Person Of Interest Found Dead
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