Public Defender Carey Haughwout wants them to call to get information on how they can separate unpaid fees from their sentence.
Restoring one’s right to vote can be as simple as making a phone call.
Sixty former felons in Palm Beach County experienced just that.
But they make up just a drop in the bucket — less than one half of one-tenth of a percent — of the estimated 140,000 former felons in the county, Public Defender Carey Haughwout said.
The work is far from over, and it will take more than a presidential election to get it done, she said
“I think it is important that people who have felt disenfranchised for so long feel that they have a voice,” Haughwout said. “There’s obviously important elections happening this year and many that impact criminal justice reform (and other issues). ... Being able to at least cast a vote means a great deal.”
Haughwout gave a four-month progress report on the efforts of those who have a hand in Palm Beach County’s criminal justice system — including her office, the State Attorney’s Office and the court clerk — Monday at a meeting of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Palm Beach County.
In November, officials announced that court fees no longer would be tied to sentencing in Palm Beach County cases, meaning that at the very least the fees would not be an impediment to a felon’s ability to register to vote.
It was a workaround to Amendment 4, a voter-approved path to restore the right to vote to Florida’s estimated 1.4 million felons. It applies to those who have completed their sentences, and not to those convicted of murder or felonious sexual offenses.
The constitutional amendment had been caught in the courts because lawmakers were hung up on the language of the amendment “all terms of their sentences.” Last month, a three-judge federal appellate panel upheld a ruling that Florida couldn’t keep a felon from registering to vote based on his or her inability to pay fees and fines.
“This is an absolutely critical issue for voting rights and the ability to suppress voters in the United States,” said Mark Schneider, president of the Palm Beach County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Haughwout, a Democrat, said until recently her office would alter the sentencing forms by hand to separate court fees. New sentencing forms now automatically keep court fees out of a person’s sentence in Palm Beach County.
On average, Haughwout and Schneider said, felons pay $1,000 in court fees alone. Separating the fee from the sentence doesn’t mean they’re no longer obligated to pay.
Because future cases will have court fees automatically taken out of sentencing, the real work will be in going back to to review previous convictions.
Their meager results aren’t because of a lack of staff to process cases, Haughwout said, but rather because not that many people have been calling the defender’s office.
“So far, we tried to do some community outreach, churches and communities,” Haughwout said.
She said it’s important to get past the stigma of a felony conviction, which doesn’t just impact the right to vote but raises other barriers, such as employment,.
“That’s not necessarily something that folks on the ground realize (might not) touch their lives and make a difference to them,” Haughwout said. “But their city council meeting may make a difference, their county commission meeting may make a difference, their sheriff, their public defender.”
If a person has served the sentence, they can begin assuring their eligibility to vote by calling the public defender’s office. From there, they will be directed to an investigator who will research their record and, if they are qualified, lawyers will ask the court to retroactively separate court costs from the sentence. At a minimum, it could take a few weeks, Haughwout said.
“I am hopeful,” Haughwout said, “I want to continue our mission: instead of 60 people, get 6,000 and let’s start really making a difference with all of that.”