By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida..
TALLAHASSEE — A key Senate panel on Tuesday began grappling with how to carry out a constitutional amendment that “automatically” restores the right to vote to felons who’ve completed their sentences.
At the outset of the meeting, Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Keith Perry vowed not to have “any kind of hindrance or roadblocks” in implementing Amendment 4, approved by nearly 65 percent of voters in November.
At the top of the to-do list for the committee: figure out the definition of “murder.”
The amendment granted “automatic” restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
But a 90-minute Criminal Justice Committee panel discussion Tuesday revealed confusion about the “murder” exception.
“It’s an important point that we have to wrestle with here,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who is on the committee and chairs the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.
County elections officials — who use a variety of databases to verify voters’ eligibility — are relying on the state to flag people who are ineligible to vote after they’ve registered.
But state Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews said her office needs the Legislature to clarify what types of convictions the murder exclusion captures, noting that the homicide statute includes a broad swath of crimes.
“It is a question about, do you include partial birth abortion is in there, attempted murder is in there,” Matthews said. “We have gotten questions from supervisors as to what these terms mean.”
Matthews said state officials “wish to apply the law uniformly and consistently” regarding the murder and felony sexual offense exclusions.
“I don’t believe we are comfortable defining that universe. I think that is something that we sincerely seek guidance from whoever is more authorized or more experienced, as well as you all, to give us that necessary guidance,” she said.
Proponents of Amendment 4, as the measure appeared on the November ballot, maintain that voters intended for the exclusion to apply only to felons convicted of first-degree murder.
“Murder means murder,” Neil Voltz, political director of the Florida Restoration of Rights Coalition, told the committee. The coalition played a major role in the amendment’s passage. “We believe the text of the language matters.”
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Brandes, who will carry the implementation legislation, indicated lawmakers aren’t likely to go that far.
“I think the Legislature, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle here, believe that that is not what the voters intended,” said Brandes, calling the murder definition “the only major point of contention” between proponents of the amendment and lawmakers. “I have to believe that, if we have this broad swath of people who are (excluded because of) felony sexual offenses, that there should probably be an equally broad swath of individuals under the definition of murder.”
But Desmond Meade, the president of the coalition, said focus groups and polls conducted for years before the proposal went on the ballot found voters “have a problem with a person that was convicted of first-degree murder, people that commit rape, people that commit sexual offenses against children.”
“That was what the voters throughout the state of Florida have consistently said, and they’re the ones that guided the drafting of the language,” Meade said after the meeting. “So it’s not our opinion. It’s what the voters said they wanted.”
Exactly what the amendment means about felons’ completion of their terms of sentence is also up for debate.
“We thought of that as a definition that would be determined by the policy makers,” Martin County Clerk of Court Carolyn Timmans said.
Some proponents believe the amendment does not require full payment of restitution, because it is not specifically mentioned in the amendment. Others maintain restitution should be considered a component of a sentence if it is included in a judge’s sentencing order.
But finding out whether felons have paid restitution can be difficult, particularly with new privacy protections for victims included in another amendment, known as “Marsy’s Law,” that also passed in November, according to Timmans.
The clerks do not have information about whether people have paid restitution in full, Timmans said.
“That’s a gap, as individuals are trying to search for that full record,” she said.
But Reggie Garcia, a clemency lawyer who has written books on the subject, said finding out about whether a felon’s restitution has been paid may not be so problematic.
“Restitution is almost always a condition of probation and explicitly listed on the judgment and sentence. If there is prison and no probation and restitution is a component of that and it is unpaid, I would argue you’ve not completed your sentence because that’s a term of your sentence,” Garcia told The News Service of Florida.
Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux, who is president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said lawmakers could consider creating a clearinghouse that could help elections officials and people seeking to find out if they’ve completed all the terms of their sentences and are therefore eligible to vote.
It is estimated that up to 800,000 Floridians could be eligible to have their voting rights restored under the amendment, and another 50,000 convicted felons are released from prison each year.
Florida Commission on Offender Review Chairwoman Melinda Coonrod said her agency, which already conducts similar screenings for clemency cases, could provide such a service.
She said it would take about 48 minutes to process each application.
The commission would have to hire more staff to process the voter registrations, she said.
As of October, the commission had a backlog of more than 10,000 cases. An arduous restoration-of-rights process, as well as the backlog and the years-long wait for a review by the commission, prompted the amendment.
Perry said his committee will consider establishing a clearinghouse and that whoever assumes that role needs to have the money to handle the reviews.
“We don’t want to make that backlog even longer,” Perry, R-Gainesville, told reporters after the meeting. “We’re in this position because of the delay that’s done through the processes now. So we don’t want to make that worse.”