In 2018, the state of Florida joined a number of other states when they passed an amendment to their constitution that would restore voting rights to a broad category of convicted felons. It wasn’t a case of carte blanche for all convicts, however. Eligible convicts would need to have served all of their required time as well as complete any associated requirements such as community service. They would also need to pay any required fines and fees associated with their crimes and trials. It was that last bit that spurred a lawsuit brought by some of the affected felons. They claimed that many of them were too poor to pay their fines and fees, creating the equivalent of a poll tax before they would be able to restore their voting rights. The case of Jones et al. v Governor of Florida wound up at the 11th Circuit, which ruled last month that the requirement to pay the fines was a legitimate part of settling the felons’ debt to society and the requirement could stand.
In an op-ed at USA Today, Paul E. Pelletier rails against the decision, claiming that finding should be dismissed. Why? Because of racism, of course. He writes at length about the “racist roots” of fining convicts and how such practices represent Jim Crow-era efforts to suppress Black citizens and disenfranchise them.
The vestiges of enshrined racism are evident in the appalling ignorance of the court opinion’s first sentence: “Florida has long followed the common practice of excluding those who commit serious crimes from voting.”
With that dog whistle, Chief Judge William Pryor of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals proceeded to again justify as constitutional the racially biased practice of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Florida felons who have failed to pay what are, in effect, indeterminate financial penalties stemming from their convictions. This is an unfair and crushing blow to rehabilitated felons, all of them U.S. citizens and most of them minorities, who want to participate in the democratic process.
To be clear, the “common practice” of felon disenfranchisement laws in the South is rooted in Jim Crow era constitutional and legislative initiatives designed simply to deny Blacks the right to vote.
Before getting to the inevitable racism angle being raised here, it’s worth noting that the decision as to whether or not to limit or remove voting rights from felons is one made at the state level. Three states, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia, permanently disenfranchise a felony convict. Six others place restrictions on the restoration of voting rights based on the type of crime in question. All the rest allow for the restoration of voting rights after the convicts have completed their sentences. These practices have withstood multiple challenges in the courts over the years.
That last portion of the description – “completed their sentences” – is an important one. When you are convicted of a crime and go to sentencing, you may receive any number of things that serve as part of your punishment. This could obviously include incarceration, community service, probation, and, yes… fines. All of it makes up the totality of your sentence and until each aspect is fulfilled you haven’t actually “paid your debt to society.”
There is a distinct difference between being fined for a crime you have been convicted of and being charged a poll tax. Such a tax would apply to all voters and would be a specific bar to meet before an otherwise eligible voter could go to the polls. A fine is only applied to those who have been convicted by a jury of their peers and is specifically assigned as a deterrent against recidivism.
As far as the racism angle goes, what we see in Pelletier’s column is the same verbal trick that’s employed in so many of these debates. Any situation that results in a condition where one demographic group is disproportionately affected on a per capita basis is immediately described as being racist, sexist, or discriminatory in some fashion or another. And there are certainly cases where that is true. But when it comes to crime and punishment, the fact is that the disproportionate result observed takes place because the people most affected are poor. Economically disadvantaged communities produce populations with fewer options, lower standards of living, and a higher propensity of criminal activity as a result. Sadly, this is particularly true of majority-minority communities in urban centers. But if you go into the dirt-poor white communities of the south where the meth trade is wreaking havoc on everyone, you will find those same numbers of White people having unequal outcomes. It’s not because they are White. It’s because they grew up in poverty-stricken communities with little hope and limited access to services. Some rise above those challenges and succeed in both Black and White communities. Many do not.
Complaints about the 11th Circuit’s decision in this case appear to miss the mark on every score. If the citizens of the state agree to restore voting rights to felons after they complete their sentences, that’s fine. But the felons still have to complete the entire sentence. And as the court indicated, fines are a part of that sentence. It’s really as simple as that.