Note: In July, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed an earlier federal district court ruling from the Northern District of Florida granting the right to vote to all returning citizens. In September, the 11th Circuit ruled that Florida can order returning citizens to pay court fines and fees before they can register to vote. This article will continue to be updated as appropriate through the 2020 election cycle. For questions about being eligible to vote with a felony conviction in Florida, visit the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition website.
People with disabilities, particularly folks of color experiencing poverty, face barriers to resources, services, and exercising their rights in all areas of our society. When it comes to the criminal justice system, people with disabilities are targeted for arrest and incarceration at high rates. This permanently disrupts their lives, cuts them off from even more resources and opportunities, and makes the process of reintegrating back into society after incarceration (also called “reentry”) almost impossible.
In 2013, Samuel Hart, an incarcerated man with a hearing impairment, risked his life to report the ongoing abuse and neglect of prisoners with disabilities in Florida. For years, Hart and other prisoners with disabilities have reported high rates of solitary confinement, lack of reasonable accommodations, and abuse and humiliation by other inmates and prison staff.
People with disabilities are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. In 2017, the ACLU published a report on prisoners with disabilities, finding that over 25% of inmates in state prisons live with a mobility, hearing, or visual disability. That figure rises to almost 40% when you include cognitive disabilities.
As nationwide reports show, mass incarceration policies target people with disabilities and cause high levels of abuse and violence while in prison. Police and media then blame them for their own victimization. Race is also an incredibly important factor to consider in this experience. Black, Indigenous, and people of color are more likely to have chronic health conditions and face systemic barriers to receiving adequate care. Black people are three times as likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. Race cannot be left out of this conversation.
In 2018, Marcus-David Peters, an unarmed Black man experiencing a psychiatric episode was killed by police after crashing his car. Disability rights advocates have engaged in initiatives such as HEARD’s #DeafInPrison Campaign that expose injustice, discrimination and abuse perpetrated against prisoners with disabilities. Unfortunately, these problems don’t end as soon as prison sentences do.
After leaving prison, people go through a reentry process. The reentry process for people with felony convictions is difficult, and it is only harder for people with disabilities. Lack of housing options post-conviction, high poverty rates, the termination of SSI and SSDI payments, unemployment, and a lack of identification are challenges that particularly disempower the disability community. In the November 2018 elections, Floridians had a chance to address another barrier, voter disenfranchisement. Amendment 4, the “Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative” addressed this issue. With over 64% of voters in favor, the initiative passed and amended the state Constitution, expanding voter eligibility to Floridians with felony convictions following their completion of all terms of their sentence. The ballot measure was intended to enfranchise over 1.4 million returning citizens – 10% of Florida’s adult population and over 20% of the adult African American population. Through Amendment 4, Florida joined 47 other states in expanding voting rights and providing direct pathways to voting for hundreds of thousands of citizens.
While this amendment made significant changes to voting rights policy, the 2019 Florida Legislature moved quickly to introduce and pass SB 7066. This bill requires felons to pay all outstanding court-ordered fees before their voting rights are restored. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into Florida law in June of 2019, which defined “all terms of sentence” to include restitution payments, court ordered fees or fines, and fees involved in sentencing. Completing all financial obligations presents significant barriers for returning citizens. In Florida, defendants can be charged a fee for court-ordered electronic monitoring (ankle monitors), probation and supervision, room and board (while incarcerated), and criminal fees that are continually increasing each year.
According to a 2010 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, Florida is increasingly dependent on criminal justice fees to support government financial functioning. From 1996 to 2007, the Florida legislature created over 20 new categories of “legal financial obligations” (LFOs) and fees continue to increase. In just three counties combined (Broward, Palm Beach, & Miami-Dade), people with felony convictions owe over $1 billion in fees. Most of Florida’s incarcerated population comes from a lower socioeconomic status, and performance measures for court clerks only expect a 9% collection rate for fees in felony cases. Returning citizens are set up to fail in a billion-dollar court fee industry.
The ACLU, the NAACP, and the Brennan Center for Justice filed Lawsuits against the State regarding SB 7066 on behalf of clients all over the state. The ACLU criticized the law as a “Poll tax,” saying it violates the 1st and 19th Amendment. The ACLU also emphasized how the fines burdened Black women in particular, who are more likely to have lower incomes, experience mental health disabilities, and have physical disabilities.
In October of 2019, US District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled against the state, agreeing with the plaintiffs that SB 7066 is unconstitutional. Judge Hinkle cited the 24th Amendment, saying that Florida “cannot deny restoration of a felon’s right to vote solely because the felon does not have the financial resources necessary to pay restitution.”
In May of 2020, Judge Hinkle filed a 125-page ruling critical of Florida’s elections officials and creating categories for returning citizens to hurry the process of tracking voter enfranchisement. The DeSantis administration has challenged Judge Hinkle’s decision and the lawsuit currently sits in the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, where a ruling is expected in the coming months. As the 2020 presidential election looms closer, it’s crucial for state systems to enfranchise voters in ways that are accessible and constitutional. The DeSantis Administration must create structures to assist all Floridians in the voting process, including those who have fulfilled their debt to society and should be welcomed back into our communities with open arms and the accommodations they need to successfully reintegrate.
“Kathryn Casello is a Public Policy Intern at Disability Rights Florida. Kathryn received a bachelor’s degree in social work from Florida State University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work with an emphasis on social leadership.”