Prior to November 2018, felons in Florida were barred from the voting booth for life. That meant that about 10% of the voting age population in the state was disenfranchised for having a felony conviction. When someone owes a debt to society, how should we determine when it’s paid in full?
Throughout this episode Natalie Dowzicky talked with; Julie Ebenstein, Neil Volz, Lance Wissinger, and Ashley Thomas
Image Credit: New York Post
Music by Cellophane Sam
00:07 Natalie Dowzicky: Until November 2018, felons in Florida could not participate in elections even if they had completed their sentences; they also could not serve on a jury. This affected approximately two million people in the state of Florida. In 2007, Governor Charlie Crist, under his clemency power, passed legislation that would allow ex-felons to regain their right to vote if approved by the parole commission, meaning it is up for debate amongst a parole board to decide who can and cannot vote. That law was reversed in 2011 after only 150,000 ex-felons gained their right to vote.
00:49 Julie Ebenstein: America believes in redemption, and in giving second chances.
00:55 Lance Wissinger: I can’t change it. I’ll never actually accept that it’s what happened, but I’ll use it as motivation to move forward and keep doing the best that I can.
01:05 Natalie Dowzicky: This is The Pursuit, I’m Natalie Dowzicky.
01:13 Natalie Dowzicky: A felon is someone who commits a crime sufficiently serious to be punishable by death, or imprisonment for more than one year. Felonies are distinct from misdemeanors and what is considered a felony varies from state to state, Disenfranchisement of felons dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. But it came to America when English colonists instituted the common law practice of civil death, which included revoking the right to vote. At the time, it was a steadfast belief that criminals lacked exemplary character, and therefore should not vote. It should come as no surprise that this policy was also racially motivated because after the passage of the 14th Amendment African-Americans could not be explicitly barred from the voting booth.
01:58 Natalie Dowzicky: Julie Ebenstein from the ACLU explains how Florida was an outlier, amongst states.
02:04 Julie Ebenstein: About 10% of the eligible voting age population in Florida was disenfranchised for a felony conviction. And Florida, once somebody had a conviction, disenfranchised them for life. Most states, there’s some way to restore your rights, either after you finish your prison sentence, after you finish parole or probation, or through some definitive process in the future. But in Florida once you had a felony conviction, it doesn’t matter if that conviction was from when you were 17 years old and you completed your sentence at 18, you could be in your 90s, and still be unable to vote. So Florida was an extreme outlier. What happened with Amendment 4 is that the citizens of Florida got together and took action that the legislature had not been willing to take.
02:53 Julie Ebenstein: Number of citizens and particularly those who were directly affected by the distant franchising law got together to collect signatures on petitions and collected enough to put the amendment on the ballot, and then about 65% of Florida voters passed this amendment. So it was really the voters who wanted to restore rights to their fellow citizens and bring them back into the electorate instead of excluding them as they had been for so many years.
03:25 Natalie Dowzicky: This amendment to the Constitution of Florida was passed by a ballot initiative as part of the 2018 Florida elections. A ballot initiative needs widespread community support. For Neil Volz, from the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, this fight was personal.
03:43 Neil Volz: Ultimately, the interest in this topic for me came from the fact that I got a felony conviction 13 years ago. And I met to stupid decisions and I crossed some lines I shouldn’t have crossed, and really upended my life and unfortunately the lives of people around me. And in the process of being restored and moving forward in my life, I moved to Florida where I learned about the collateral consequences of a lifetime felony and a label, including an inability to vote for the rest of your life in the state of Florida. And so that really led me on the path of getting involved in this movement that put Amendment 4 for on the ballot. I worked to get it passed and am now helping to implement it.
04:27 Neil Volz: This came from the pain of people who were dealing with the broken system. This came about from the community of people with passed felony convictions, our family members, our friends, and was a true organic grassroots effort that started at the bottom, and with folks who were battling to just restore their lives and reconnect their families. And we were able to get some assistance from people who are familiar with the petition process. Got a petition going and it really gained steam. It was amazing. The first 80,000 petitions that we got, which was a threshold in the state of Florida because that gets you to the Supreme Court where they can rule on whether it’s valid or not, but at its core, our identity comes from the returning citizen community, very much focused and centered on the people impacted by these policies.
05:20 Natalie Dowzicky: One of these real people, is Lance Wissinger. In 2003, Lance was training to be a para-rescuer as part of the Air Force. But he delayed his training in order to visit his father in Florida, who was gravely ill.
05:32 Lance Wissinger: I was down here. I was just like I said, spending time with family, tried to find a part-time job, ended up making some friends, and one of my friends, actually, a couple of us, we all went out to a baseball game here locally in southwest Florida. And I didn’t drive to the game, but I rode with my friends over there, but I left my car at a restaurant. And when we came back from the game, we had a couple of beers, just hanging out. Pretty sure our team won. I remember us having a real good time and then went back to the restaurant where my car was at, and decided to have a couple more drinks, and then we left to go to another place. And in the process of coming home from there, I ended up losing control of my car coming around the corner and ended up wrecking that car with my friend in the car with me.
06:26 Lance Wissinger: It was a little convertible, neither one of us had our seat belts on. We were both thrown up and out of the car. He was thrown one way, I was thrown the other. I woke up in the middle of other road and then found him off the side of the road, and he was kind of down in the canal. And then I pulled him up, he took his last few breaths of air and passed away in my arms. I woke up a couple days later where I kinda really came to and there was my staff sergeant and another gentleman there, and then some family friends that were also in the military were waiting for me to wake up. I was upset that my career was gone, but that didn’t really set in, really until a couple of months later after I’d kinda dealt with the loss of my friend more than anything. So it definitely changed the trajectory of my life.
07:16 Natalie Dowzicky: Due to his injuries, Lance would not be able to join the Air Force. He decided not to fight his DUI manslaughter charge. He went through a heartbreaking plea deal process. During that time, his father passed away.
07:28 Lance Wissinger: My biggest fear when I was charged, and when I found out that I was more than likely gonna go to jail was that I was gonna come out as a bad person. I was worried that I was gonna go in there and I was gonna be surrounded by bad people, and I was going to come out 10 times worse than anything that I ever imagined.
07:50 Natalie Dowzicky: Lance received a 10 year sentence split between five years in prison and five years probation.
07:57 Lance Wissinger: I didn’t sleep the first week. I lost about 30 pounds. There was 32 of us in a cell that was designed for 20 that was just in the downtown, that was the local jail while I was waiting to go to prison, a little over-populated, moving people around. I slept on a plastic [08:14] ____, which was just this dumb classic thing to keep you u [ off the ground but there’s no real… It’s not like a mattress or anything. The only room for me was underneath the TV, so I was out in the main area. But again I’d already been really depressed. And then going through this and now not understanding kind of what to expect, I was scared. I was absolutely scared the first couple of months.
08:38 Julie Ebenstein: But at the same time, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I went in there and I found myself. I had everything stripped away except for me and I had to deal with that. And so I started to meditate, and I started to do yoga and I started to do these things that I was able to do in an eight by ten box. And by the time I came out of there, I had completely accepted everything that had happened from my accident, from my dad, from any issues that I had had personally with friends or family, anything like that. I just processed all of them.
09:16 Natalie Dowzicky: Lance was incredibly active. He started a Toastmasters Club. He even worked to better the lives of those around him.
09:23 Lance Wissinger: Some of these guys have never had jobs before. So I brought in a Toastmaster’s Program to do mock job interviews with these guys, and everybody went through that Toastmasters Club, all went out and got jobs and stayed at the facility. My vice president for that group, he’s the one that’s working with Tony Robbins and does head talks now. But my favorite story of the Toastmasters group is my own roommate, my own cellmate. He was 25 years old. It was his third time in prison. He had some physical and some mental deficiencies, just always picked on his entire life, nobody ever gave him a chance. And as soon as something would go wrong, he would lash out in anger, and he did that to me one time and instead of getting mad back at him, I gave him a big bear hug and held him down until he quit arguing.
10:12 Lance Wissinger: And from that we sat up, we talked. We had a conversation; we actually became pretty good buddies. So, when I started this Toastmaster’s program, I let him be our sergeant-at-arms. He was the one in charge of setting up the room. He was in charge of making sure who could come in and he a list at the door who could come in, who was invited guests. He was supposed to take care of them. He did that job. He followed me everywhere; he did that job. He loved having that responsibility. Anything that I would ask him to do, he would go do it, and it wasn’t always done correctly, but it was always done to the best of his ability and that’s all I ever asked for. So now he got out the day before me and he has been home ever since. He volunteers with the Red Cross. He volunteers with Salvation Army. He works for Uber. He works for Pizza Hut. He’s married and has kids now, and he stayed home ever since, and it was like, he still to this day says it’s because that he was given an opportunity. And so that story right there, is why I do what I do today. That one kid because now somebody gave him a little bit of responsibility, and now he is out there making a difference in the world, volunteering whenever there’s an emergency.
11:28 Natalie Dowzicky: The recidivism rate in the US is 76.6%. One of the many reasons criminals land back in prison is because they are lacking a strong sense of community. They truly feel like they don’t belong, and navigating the world after prison can be difficult. Participating in elections is just one way for former felons to actively engage with the community around them. Any time legislation is passed that affects voting or those eligible to vote, it becomes a divisive issue. Instead of embracing a community that is consistently marginalized, many were more concerned about felons effectively swinging the State of Florida blue. But Neil has some thoughts on that line of thinking.
12:08 Neil Volz: So we knew at the grassroots level, people who collected petitions for years, didn’t even know what it meant to be a Republican or Democrat, ‘cause they weren’t allowed to be Republicans or Democrats. They simply were united behind common experiences and common values, and so we knew that we could transcend some of that division by just staying united behind some real basic values. Like when the debts paid it’s paid. And it was amazing to watch that just kinda take on a life of its own. The quicker somebody’s able to reintegrate into the community, the more likely they are to stay in the community, become contributing member of the community, and less likely they are to recidivate. Like many of us said, when we got our voting cards and registered to vote, I feel like a full citizen again. So there is something to that as well, that this really can become a win-win in which people’s voices can be heard and we could help create safer communities. In the process.
13:03 Natalie Dowzicky: Amendment 4 passed overwhelmingly at the booth, but it did not include all felons. The amendment did include felons who had completed their sentence and were convicted of non-violent offenses. Now, it was up to the Florida legislature to draft the measure into law. II that process they determined that those convicted of murder or sexual offenses would still be barred from voting. Lastly, the Florida State Legislature defined a completed sentence, not only as the completion of jail time, but also the full payment of all fines and fees associated with that sentence. This is Ashley Thomas from the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
13:41 Ashley Thomas: In Florida, there are a number of different costs that can be associated when somebody goes through the criminal justice system. There’s fines, there’s fees, and there’s also restitution and for purposes of Amendment 4, all three of them are relevant. Every criminal felony case in Florida is going to have fees attached to it, and these are fees that are designed to pay in part for the court system; there are fees that pay for various state agencies and different programs, but essentially it’s a way for the so-called user of the criminal justice system to pay for their criminal justice system.
14:22 Ashley Thomas: They know that people who go and through the criminal justice system and have felony convictions are very unlikely to repay those debts ever. In their own publications they consider it good if they collect 9%, and they even say that there’s just minimal collections expectations for these fines and fees. So there’s a fines and fees forfeiture fund, which is used by the circuits to fund the courts. There’s a crime compensation trust fund, brain and spinal cord injury fund, emergency medical services, Florida drug device and cosmetic trust fund, Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, State game Trust Fund, Department of law enforcement and criminal justice Standards and Training trust fund, Crime Stoppers trust fund, public law library. And I could go on, but that’s just some of the funds that are being funded through these fees. You’re always told that you pay your debt to society, and then you’re done, but this word “debt”can mean so many different things, what is the debt? Is it the financial debt, or is it serving time behind bars? And if the financial debt is really just to fund state operations, then maybe we need to fund state operations in a different way, especially since it’s obviously not working.
15:48 Natalie Dowzicky: Felons are governed by legislatures just as every other citizen is. It is likely that felons have even more interest in politics because their personal experience has put them closer to the law. Some may have even encountered consequences of faulty legislation in their own court proceedings. This is Julie Ebenstein, again.
16:09 Julie Ebenstein: A person shouldn’t be disenfranchised, simply because they can’t afford to pay these costs, costs which were assessed without any regard to whether or not they’re able to pay them, so you could have somebody on a fixed income who is still giving part of that income towards paying court costs or other legal financial obligations, but they won’t be able to, even if they pay that in good faith, even if they pay that regularly, and even if it’s a small amount that’s not meant to be punitive, they still could be unable to complete payments and have their rights restored for decades.
16:42 Julie Ebenstein: This law distinguishes and discriminates on the basis of, “Well somebody shouldn’t have to wait sometimes for decades to have their rights restored simply because they’re unable to afford to make these standard payments. America believes in redemption, and in giving second chances. So we have a group of people, who at some point sometimes when they were 16 or 17 years old, made a mistake, took some sort of illegal action and were convicted. These are all people who have served any prison sentence. These are all people who have served any supervision parole, probation. Many folks have either paid some of or are continuing to pay any outstanding debts. The only thing that’s left that they are unable to do is pay money.
17:27 Julie Ebenstein: The law is really un-American for a number of reasons: One, because here we say that you shouldn’t have to pay for the right to vote. That’s one of the core constitutional principles established by the Supreme Court. So any system where people are required to pay no matter how small an amount but are required to pay to vote, is unconstitutional. The other reason is that we believe in second chances; somebody can finish their sentence and have a shot to become a full-fledged member of their community, and hat should include joining the electorate.
18:00 Julie Ebenstein: Our clients are all people who have really used the second chance that they got in the best way possible. We have clients who do volunteer work, two actually who work at a local homeless shelter. One women who struggled with addiction for many years and was able to really turn her life around. She’s a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother. She works full-time; she volunteers in her community, and she’s just not able to afford to pay outstanding fines and fees. I think the people to really focus on when you ask what kind of debts do people owe, it that a lot of people don’t have a few hundred or a few thousand dollars to spare. They’re trying to get their life back in order or they have gotten their life back, they’re supporting families, they’re running their day-to-day, they’re either trying to find employment or they’re currently employed, but they don’t have extra money lying around. They’re focused on their… And often times their families, health and survival.
19:05 Natalie Dowzicky: Julie is fighting for people like Lance. For him and many others the struggle to take advantage of their second chance continues on.
19:13 Lance Wissinger: Yeah, I live with it every day; it’s something that I carry with me but I can’t change it, and I can’t, I’ll never actually accept that it’s what happened, but I’ll use it as motivation to move forward and keep doing the best that I can. And the other thing that I hear, and I hear this more than I hear anything else is, “But for the grace of God, go I.” And people make mistakes all time; people drink and drive all the time, and it’s terrible. And I hope that I can… I’m able to share my story just to get people to not do that. My taking advantage of my second chance has been priority one from the minute I found my buddy in the road. I have a tattoo on my back, it was one of his favorite hats, it happens to be a shamrock. In Irish Catholicism it’s supposed to be the sign of the cross. And so, that’s my cross to bear. And it’s part of him. And so I have that on my back to bear it, but at the same time it’s pushing me forward; it’s him pushing me forward, making me do the things that I know that I need to do and the things that I wanna do. And so he’s with me all the time, always pushing forward, always making sure that I’m doing as much as I can to help anybody else, so that’s like a chance to me, is huge.
20:34 Lance Wissinger: And I wanted to go out and rescue people. I wanted to give people second chances. I’ve always wanted to give people second chances. I’ve always wanted to be able to help out. So, doing this now as advocacy for something that is very close to me, something that is… I’m personally affected by, it’s just natural for me to want to go out and do the best that I can and bring as many people along with as possible.
21:09 Natalie Dowzicky: Thanks for listening to The Pursuit. If you liked The Pursuit, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. The Pursuit is a project of Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. Music by Cellophane Sam. If you’d like to learn about libertarianism visit us at Libertarianism.org.
21:40 Natalie Dowzicky: On Friday, October 18th, US District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a limited ruling, blocking part of the Florida law that requires people with felony convictions to pay all fines and fees related to their sentences before they can register to vote. Hinkle’s ruling supports that the state is allowed to deny the vote to a person who has a proven ability to pay the legal debt and simply chooses not to. However, he also said that Florida cannot deny restoration to felons who are unable to pay. The case is now postponed until April of 2020, for further review and a final decision.