No reasonable person would think Florida voters approved Amendment 4 to make it harder for felons to regain the right to vote than it was under former Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet in their role as Florida’s Clemency Board.
Despite other restrictions in the executive clemency process, that is where the Legislature is heading if it requires felons to pay all fines, fees and restitution before they could vote again.
Barney Bishop wrote a column recently entitled, "Amendment 4 Needs Clarity, in Spite of What You Hear from the Media and Proponents." I concur.
He noted a “good friend of mine who testified for the proponents and who is a good lawyer with a long-held passion for helping the downtrodden and forgotten, accidently I believe, let the cat out of the bag when he said ‘felony sexual offenses’ was used as a marketing tool after polling indicated that those words would be easily understood by citizens."
Without mentioning my name. Barney was referring to me. He exclaimed in that piece, words matter. Once again. I concur, which is why I decided to respond -- and gave Barney a heads-up, especially since he’s a friend. I told him I intended to clarify what I presumed was an inadvertent conflation of what I said.
The confusion presumably arose given that he referenced only a limited portion of my larger observations before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. Said another way, what I said was taken out of context.
I shared my informal understanding that framers of the ballot initiative conducted extensive polling and determined essentially it would make sense to exclude murder and sex offenses from Amendment 4 rather than attempt to take on a massive public education campaign in the nation’s third most populous state. The task would have entailed efficiently and effectively explaining there’s no public safety imperative to treat violent from non-violent case histories differently for purposes of post-sentence restoration of voting eligibility. As an aside, some states allow inmates to vote from prison regardless of the severity of the offense(s), and others while on parole or probation.
To be clear, my observation was that polling data prompted framers to incorporate two categories of excludable offenses, not all violent offenses per se. And it was not that polling data prompted framers to use any particular term. I recognize that Barney may have missed that distinction.
As far as letting the cat out of the bag, had I been afforded an opportunity, I might have been guilty as charged if for no other reason than cruelty to animals considerations. Seriously, at this point, it also might be useful to clarify that in every instance when I’ve appeared before legislative committees pertaining to these matters, I’ve done so not as a proponent or an opponent of any bill, rather “For Information” in an effort to disabuse a number of popular, albeit not necessarily well-founded, narratives. All is a matter of public record. I also should underscore my tack generally is more toward dispassionate analysis than passionate advocacy regardless of the issue.
Anyway, some lawmakers are responding to a preliminary proceeding before the Florida Supreme Court in May 2017 wherein Jon Mills, former speaker of the Florida House and dean emeritus of UF's' Levin College of Law, appeared on behalf of proponents as if his assertions amounted to the equivalent of the actual text of the amendment. It doesn’t. As readers may be aware, he asserted fines, fees and restitution must be paid for restoration of former offender voting eligibility.
The irony of Mills’ role on the 1997-98 iteration of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission advocating for, in effect, user fees as an alternative means to fund the Judicial Branch aside, the proceeding in May 2017 was limited in scope. Once a ballot initiative reaches a certain point in the process, Florida’s highest court routinely reviews whether the language essentially is plain and addresses a single subject. The language at face value was the matter before the Court — nothing more.
Any pronouncements by Mills that day or the coalition of grassroots voices and stakeholders at any point are incontrovertibly more distracting than binding.
Beyond issues involving monetary obligations and the qualitative difference among them, legislators could broaden any clarifying legislation to facilitate implementation statewide. For instance, eligibility to serve on a jury is a statutory right and holding public office is a logical extension of voting. The Legislature could decide such complementary civil rights should be restored along with voting eligibility.
Finally, research by the investigative arm of the governor and Cabinet as Florida’s Clemency Board might help to inform legislators' approach toward these ends. It indicates post-sentence civil rights restoration tends to reduce recidivism and promote more successful reentry.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that ensuing restoration of voting eligibility under Amendment 4 and ideally the other complementary rights is as easy and inclusive as possible would be in the best interests of all parties -- ex-offenders would have a voice in their governance, victims would be more likely to collect restitution given ex-offenders’ increased opportunity to earn an income upon more successful reentry, and community policing objectives would be advanced by lowering recidivism rates.
Mark R. Schlakman is senior program director at Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. He previously served as assistant general counsel and clemency aide for Gov. Lawton Chiles.