OPINION: A poll-tax in sheep’s clothing

Austin Belet, Opinions Editor

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Does anyone remember Ben & Jerry’s handing out ice cream on the Green last November?

If you do, you might just remember they were doing so to try and turn out the vote on Amendment 4; the amendment that would restore the right to vote to felons who had completed their sentence.

Well,  there is still an uphill climb to ensure that felons will be given their right to vote. The Florida legislature decided that to do so, felons would need to pay off their court fees and fines first.

Think back to when you were a kid and you stole a cookie from the cookie jar (or whatever your cookie jar was), how did your parents react? They probably gave you a stern lecture and said don’t do that. Inevitably you were able to eat cookies again, but in that moment your cookie eating capability was suspended.

Shouldn’t the punishment of a crime be the same way? I mean, should someone who has a felony conviction for possession of too much weed be punished indefinitely for their crime?

The process of criminal justice has focused far too long on simply punishing people for the crime they have committed, but is that enough? In my eyes, the justice system is supposed to act as the social doctor that helps to identify and treat crime in our communities.

Let’s go back to the cookie jar for a moment. If you had stolen that cookie at the age of six, would you expect to still be barred from eating cookies at your parents’ house at  18?

That is effectively what we have been doing to felons in this state in regards to their ability to participate in our society as normal, functioning members. It is imperative that we look to the re-education and reintegration process when we examine the punishment of a crime. It seems largely useless to simply lock people in a box for a span of time and smear their reputation for the rest of time over felonious petty theft, which only means about $300 of merchandise.

In discussion with Criminal Defense Attorney Finley Williams of the Law Offices of John Phillips, it was brought to my attention that these fees and fines tend to be much higher in the case of drug crimes. One example he provided was with possession of cocaine, which if one is in possession of over 28 grams, automatically leads to a $5,000 fine.

But, not that many people carry 28 grams of cocaine (probably).One thing that has become big in recent years that grants an almost immediate felony is THC oil. While you need 20 grams or more of marijuana for felony possession, with almost any amount of THC oil you could be faced with a felony almost immediately – not to mention the fine to match.

Once you start considering that even if your fees/fines only amass to a couple of hundred dollars (which often in the case of drug crimes it does not), you then have to consider what it takes to pay that off. Some people may be lucky enough to have family who can help, but more often than not it is on the person who has been incarcerated to pay those costs. How easy is it for a felon to get a job? What kinds of jobs can they get? Can they afford to pay those fees?

There was a glimmer of hope during the Amendment 4 fight, it seemed that for a moment Florida might just turn it’s back on the for-profit prison complex that it has so readily embraced, and allow these returning citizens the chance to actually be apart of a political structure that has largely ignored them.

Williams said in our conversation that he felt the voters had been misrepresented by the law and that they have changed the intent into a monetary issue.

If we as a democracy wish to embrace a representative government, than perhaps we should ensure that it indeed represents all people. By requiring felons to pay off their debts to be able to participate in an election when there are people who don’t even pay their taxes, are we not restricting democracy? Is this not just a poll-tax in sheep’s clothing?

Special thanks to the Law Offices of John Phillips and Criminal Defense Attorney Finley Williams.

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