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Proposed 'rocket docket' could restore voting rights

Since Florida voters overwhelmingly approved restoring voting rights for felons in November 2018, the question among lawmakers has become how to implement it.

TAMPA, Fla. — Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren thinks he has the answer on how to best comply with Amendment 4: He is proposing a “rocket docket.” Warren says a large group of low-level offenders would go before a judge and the judge would convert those fines into community service.

Warren sat down for a one-on-one interview with 10Investigates' Courtney Robinson to explain the proposal and answer questions about how it impacts crime victims and financially impacts the county.

Amendment 4 and court fines

Florida voters overwhelming approved restoring voting rights for felons in November 2018.  In order to be eligible to vote, they must complete their sentence, pay any restitution and court fines and fees. The fines and fees have become the issue. There are felons who say they cannot afford to pay those and the ACLU says it amounts to a “poll tax.”

According to the Hillsborough County Clerk of Courts, some defendants owe hundreds of thousands in court fines and fees, some owe thousands, some owe hundreds and others owe none.

In addition, the clerk’s office says it is difficult to collect the fines and fees assessed.

The office provided numbers from September 2007 to September 2017. During that time, the court system assessed $503,067,480.57. It collected $15,010,477.99. That amounts to 2.98 percent of all fines and fees.

The money that is collected does fund the judicial system.

RELATED: Some worry new law could be setback for felon voting rights

Warren argues that because, so few can and do pay, community service would benefit all.

“The court fines and fees are part of the normal judicial process here. The problem is that we’ve been funding our judicial system and our court system on the backs of the people who come through it which is probably not a very good long-term approach," Warren said. "What we’re trying to avoid here is having two classes of citizens: People who can afford the right to vote and people who can’t afford the right to vote."

When asked whether it would be fair to convert fines owed for those who cannot pay, while not doing the same for offenders who are able to pay, Warren said yes.

“We want to make sure that we’re doing is not discriminating against people based on an inability to pay. There are certain people for example who can’t afford to provide for a lawyer and if you have the ability to pay for a lawyer you do, but under the constitution, if you don’t have the ability to pay for a lawyer the state will provide one for you. It’s a similar situation here,” Warren said.

Hillsborough County also follows an administrative order barring judges from waiving fines and fees with rare exceptions. It reads, “each judge will ensure that mandatory costs, assessments, surcharges, and fines are not waived unless specifically authorized by law.” 

Watch: Full interview: How 'rocket docket' could restore voting rights in Florida

'Rocket docket' does not erase restitution

Warren was clear that restitution must be paid. It will not be converted to community service.

“Restitution is different than the fines and fees that the court imposes. This whole process operates outside of restitution. Restitution has to be paid first. This is in no way stepping on the rights of victims. It’s coming after victims have been fully paid or if there were no victims in the first place,” Warren said.

“We are focused on after restitution has been paid or for cases where there was no restitution in the first place because we want to make sure that victims have been fully compensated but once they have been then we can turn our attention to making sure that we’re helping these returning citizens get the rights to vote back as the amendment contemplates,” he added.

Who is eligible for the proposed 'rocket docket'

The State Attorney says low-level offenders who do not owe restitution would be eligible.  He says his office is going through data right now to identify which felons fit the profile.  He doesn’t have an exact number but estimates there will be thousands.

“We are focused on offense is where there’s no restitution and no victims, so traffic offenses and drug offenses, possession cases are going to be the two biggest categories of people who once they’ve completed those terms and they don’t owe any restitution and there’s no victim to be made whole if they have fines and fees that can be converted to community service that’s our focus,” Warren explained.

Is it political?

Money aside, there is a push across the state to add eligible voters to the voter rolls before the 2020 Presidential election. Warren has tasked his office with working to get the “rocket docket” rolling by the end of the year.

He says it is not about politics.

“This is about what is best for our community. We talk about criminal justice in the context of holding offenders accountable, reducing recidivism, supporting victims and helping people transition back to our community; This is that fourth piece of it," Warren said. "We are helping offenders transition back into our community. Studies show that people who gain the right to vote are less likely to re-offend.  

"This becomes a public safety issue as well as a fairness issue and most importantly it’s the law in Florida it’s our obligation to follow it."

The complexity of the 'rocket docket'

Warren admits there’s a lot of nuance to this and it is very complex  His office will have to identify who qualifies to go before a judge. Warren says that if an offender feels they are eligible they can contact his office.

He also says it’s difficult because there are so many players involved. When asked how he would ensure that a felon isn’t cleared of court fines by a Hillsborough County judge while owing elsewhere, he said that’s part of the issue. 

There’s not a central state database that identifies who owes fines and fees and where. According to Warren, they are working with local “stakeholders” and Tallahassee to follow the law. 

He says the chief judge in Hillsborough County is on board with the idea as a way to implement Amendment 4. 

“We hope other jurisdictions look at what we’ve done as a standard and a path to actually implement Amendment 4,” Warren said.

Other jurisdictions in Tampa Bay

State Attorney for Pinellas-Pasco, Bernie McCabe, declined to comment on the proposed “rocket docket.” The Tampa Bay Times reported July 1 that he opposes the idea.   

State Attorney Brian Haas who represents Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties wouldn’t comment on the “rocket docket.” When asked why, a spokesperson did not respond.

10News is waiting to hear back from State Attorney Ed Brodsky who represents Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.

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