Miami-Dade County helps poverty-stricken felons with restoration of voting rights

Top prosecutor: Felons' court fees won't prevent restoration of voting rights

By Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer

MIAMI - Anthony Hannah wants to be able to vote in the 2020 presidential election and some members of the the Miami-Dade County legal community want to make sure he does. His status as a convicted felon shouldn't get in the way.

Hannah was sentenced to 12 years in prison for robbery and burglary in 1992. He appealed his case, saying he had entered a plea without understanding the consequences of being classified as a habitual offender. He lost and was released just in time for Christmas in 2001. 

Hannah stayed away from trouble until 2014, when he was accused of possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana. Although he wasn't convicted, the court fees stacked up. Miami-Dade County Court put him on a payment plan. He paid about $470 in fees by 2015. 

"I paid it with time, but I did never pay it in court or anything like that, but I paid my debt," Hannah, 62, told Local 10 News Reporter Glenna Milberg from his home in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood. 

Hannah is among the felons who are putting the now-repealed ban on voting behind. He worries that poverty could get in the way for others, but voting rights activists are hopeful about a new process to help convicted felons who are indebted with the court in Miami-Dade County. 

Desmond Meade, a voting rights activist who spearheaded the voting rights ballot measure with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told reporters Monday he believes the Miami-Dade process should serve as a state-wide model. 

"There is no tricks. There is no trying to circumvent," Meade said during a news conference. "There is no loopholes to be found. We are operating under the letter of the law."

The ban on felons' right to vote has a dark history. After the Civil War ended, Congress moved to force Tallahassee's white elite to allow every man -- including thousands of black residents -- the right to vote.

Voting rights experts say the criminalization of poverty and race followed. In 1868, Florida legislators issued a lifetime voting ban for convicted felons. The ban was in effect until November, when voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to automatically restore the voting rights of felons like Hannah. 

The legal change, which the Sentencing Project estimates impacts about 1.4 million Florida residents, hasn't come without resistance. The law doesn't apply to convicted felons in murder or se

The new law requires convicted felons to have completed all of the terms of their sentence, including parole or probation, to be able to restore their voting rights. Florida's legislature and governor implemented a list of requirements that define the terms of a sentence to include the payment of all financial penalties. 

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law filed a federal lawsuit challenging the law that limits the amendments reach by saying it creates "wealth-based hurdles" to voting.

"Over a million Floridians were supposed to reclaim their place in the democratic process, but some politicians clearly feel threatened by greater voter participation," Julie Ebenstein, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. 

Meade stood next to State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle and Public Defender Carlos Martinez on Monday when they announced that they came up with a process for felons, who were not convicted of murder or a sexual offense and who owe fines and fees to the court. 

"Costs and fees are not part of your sentence,"  Fernandez Rundle said. 

In cases with restitution payments, the amount needs to have been paid to the victim, Fernandez Rundle said. If the felon doesn't have an ability to pay the fees in full, an affidavit could be filed with the court. 

"The overwhelming majority of people who have felony convictions will qualify under this process," Martinez said, referring to the estimated 150,000 felons who will be able to benefit from the new process. 

The State Attorney's Office released a statement saying that restoring the right to vote is "smart justice" because "people whose rights are restored tend to recidivate at a lower rate than those whose rights are not restored."

For Meade, the new process means that a century and a half of repressing the voting rights of convicted felons like Hannah is now part of Miami-Dade's past. National civil rights groups are watching. 

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