Organizations advocate for removing barriers for Florida ex-felons

Ariel Maldonado, a North Fort Myers resident, says he’s struggling to move forward with his life due to him owing $49,000 in court fines and fees.

“When I went to prison in 2008 I was sentenced to three years with a $50,000 fine for cocaine trafficking,” said 38-year-old-Maldonado. “Life’s been difficult for me. I’ve been working at a moving company for ten years as an independent contractor. They would love to hire me but can’t because of my fines and fees. I have no health insurance, 401k, or paid time off.”

Maldonado said the company’s insurance stipulates that they can hire an ex-felon as long as the individual doesn’t owe any fines or fees.

More than 70 million Americans — nearly 1 in 3 adults — have a criminal record, which can severely limit access to employment, education, housing, civic engagement and public assistance, according to The Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization that presents a liberal viewpoint on economic and social issues.

A look at the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is a nonprofit dedicated to ending the disenfranchisement and discrimination against people with convictions. It has a program funded by donations to help with their fines and fees.

The nonprofit has paid fines and fees in all 67 of Florida’s counties. Individuals signed up for assistance for the fines and fees program through the phone and website. The counties include Charlotte: 12 people totaling $13,500, Collier: 6 people totaling $5,000, Hendry: 50 people totaling $23,000 and Lee: 824 people totaling $664,000.

Maldonado said he reached out to FRRC for assistance with his fines and fees.

“I’m working with them (FRRC),” said Maldonado. “They’re trying their best to see if there’s anything they can do.”

Maldonado said that when he was released from prison providing for his family was his top priority.

“As a single father caring for my son there was no way I could pay off my fines and fees,” said Maldonado. “I had to live. My main goal was to take care of my kid. After a while I met and married my wife. We have a one-year-old and a baby on the way. I think about it (fines and fees) more because I have a bigger family.”

Joshua Underwood, a Fort Myers native and ex-felon, is an advocate for removing barriers that prevent ‘returning citizens’ from reintegrating into society, especially the right to vote.

“I feel that in the grand scheme of things we (returning citizens) should have a voice and be able to weigh in on the subjects that affect our environment,” said 36-year-old-Underwood. “We shouldn’t be judged by our worst mistake from 10, 20 or 30 years ago. My right to vote was restored when Amendment 4 (Felon Voting Rights) passed. I got my life back.

“Having the right to vote is essential to being able to acclimate into society. If a man has paid his debt there shouldn’t be any residual consequences once the debt has been fully paid.”

Amendment 4 passed in Florida in 2018

In 2018 Amendment 4 passed in Florida removing the lifetime ban on voting rights for most people with past felony convictions. Hundreds of thousands of people are still unable to vote due to fines and fees they still owe but can’t pay, according to FRRC.

“I was sentenced to a 15 year prison sentence and of the 15 years I served 13 years and 10 months,” said Underwood. “I was convicted as a juvenile for a number of crimes including attempted felony murder of a law enforcement officer. I was released from prison in August 2016.”

Underwood said his right to vote was restored automatically after Amendment 4 passed. However that’s not the case for everyone.

“To my knowledge people who owed fines and fees to the court as a result of the crime did not automatically get the right to vote restored,” said Underwood. “Once paid it’s simply a matter of getting registered. There were so many variables in my case. I was a juvenile who was being tried as an adult. So they waived the cost of fines and fees.”

Neil Volz deputy director for the FRRC said fees and fines are a barrier for more than 700,000 people in Florida.

“One thing to keep in mind is that the way Florida funds our justice system is through user fees, and fines, and ultimately, it’s charging the people who are going through the system,” said 51-year-old Volz. “So every time you walk into the courtroom there’s an administrative fee and that adds up. Then you get interest payments on the money that you owe and it becomes this kind of cycle of debt. It becomes a burden for somebody just at the moment when they’re trying to live a better life.”

Volz said not paying off the fees or fines can trickle down into other aspects of life.

“Your driver’s license can be suspended for an inability to pay a traffic ticket,” said Volz. “We live in a world in which 90% of people drive to work. So we’re creating incentives for people to not be employed and then having expectations that they should be able to pay the money that they owe. I think if we look at everyone involved as a human being and we have shared human experiences, all of our voices matter.

“For instance 95% of the people who get sentenced to Florida prison are coming home. We should see that person as a person and know that if that person can re-enter the community successfully everybody benefits. Tearing down these barriers to economic mobility is good for everybody in the community.”

Florida State Director with the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC) Sarah Couture said there’s a difference between fines and fees.

“Fines are punitive and are intended to be punishment for the crime that was committed,” said Couture. “The easiest way to describe fees is user fees or regressive taxes and they’re wide ranging. And some of them just get labeled additional court costs. It has nothing to do with the crime that was committed and they generate revenue.”

The Fines and Fees Justice Center is a national advocacy organization working to reform fines and fees, create a justice system that treats individuals fairly, ensures public safety and is funded equitably.

Couture said in Florida if you don’t pay your fines and fees your license gets suspended as well as causing other barriers.

“If you’re incarcerated you’re not able to pay your fines and fees in full or sign up for a payment plan,” said Couture. “So if you’re incarcerated and your license is suspended while you’re incarcerated, you leave incarceration without a valid driver’s license. So it creates the obvious barrier of being unable to drive. It also trickles down to your ability to get housing and it affects your ability to obtain a job.”

Couture said during the legislative session of 2021, a law got passed to make uniform payment plans.

“On July 1 a new law went into effect that made payment plans affordable,” said Couture. “Prior to that there were 67 Clerks of Court in Florida and there were 67 different payment plans. So it set minimum monthly payments at $25 or 2% of somebody’s annual net income divided by 12. Whichever of those two amounts is greater.”

Couture also said they are advocating for additional Florida legislation in 2023.

“One of the things that we have is some legislation that we’re working on for the legislative session of 2023. It looks at people who are incarcerated and saying, ‘You can’t send them to collections and you can’t suspend their licenses while they’re incarcerated,’ ” said Couture. “You have to give them 90 days from their release date to contact you and set up a payment plan. Hopefully these things help people who are leaving incarceration, trying to re-enter society so they have a chance.”

Couture said they don’t have a sponsor for the bill and likely won’t have one until after the election.

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