Florida Adopted Two Far-Reaching Amendments. What Will Be Their Impact?

Daniel Nichanian

On Nov. 6, Floridians approved two important ballot initiatives. The adoption of Amendment 11 repeals the state’s “Savings Clause,” which barred the legislature from reducing people’s existing sentences and thereby severely limited the reach of sentencing reforms. Until now, no matter how progressive a reform, it could not be applied retroactively to people already convicted.

Amendment 4 automatically restores the voting rights of people who complete most felony sentences. This will significantly reduce the share of citizens stripped of the right to vote in Florida. (21 percent of Black adults, and 8 percent of the rest of Florida’s voting-age population, according to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project).

This year, no other state disenfranchised as many otherwise eligible residents, a situation of mass exclusion that calls into question the way in which the press nevertheless covers Florida elections as democratic contests. Governor Rick Scott, who as of this writing led Senator Bill Nelson by a narrow margin in the U.S. Senate race, tightened the rules by which people could regain their rights shortly after becoming governor in 2011. Over the sole term of his predecessor Charlie Crist, about 155,000 people regained their voting rights; but only 3,000 (disproportionately white) people did so during Scott’s two terms, a considerable restriction that looms large over last week’s elections.

Republican Representative Ron DeSantis is the apparent winner of the gubernatorial election, pending a recount. DeSantis opposed Amendment 4 and campaigned against sentencing reforms, so how would his governorship affect the implementation or scope of Amendments 4 and 11?

Amendment 4 is “self-executing,” said Melba Pearson, the deputy director of the ACLU of Florida, which supported both of these ballot initiatives. “There is nothing that the legislature has to do for it to go into effect.” Regarding Amendment 11, Pearson told me that enough lawmakers support sentencing reforms that adopting changes like curbing mandatory minimums and making them retroactive (as the amendment just enabled) would at least be on the table. “We’re taking the long view,” she said. “This might be incremental progress over the course of a few years.” Republican state Senator Jeff Brandes, who has pushed reform bills, sounded an optimistic note as well in an interview with Reason. Amendment 11 “really frees the state up to begin to cast a bold vision for criminal justice reform,” Barnes said. “I think this really is going to be helpful as we look to reduce the prison population in the state of Florida and in a meaningful way.”

One uncertain question regarding Amendment 4, according to Sam Levine of the HuffPost, is whether people will need to have paid all of their legal fines and fees before their rights are restored; some other states impose such a requirement to exclusionary effects.“These are indigent people and the fines and fees are quite excessive, so it doesn’t get paid,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, told Levine. “Typically, if you abide by the other conditions of probation, then they just ignore the fines and fees.” The HuffPost article, as well as a new Think Progress story by Kira Lerner on the ramifications of Amendment 4, details other obstacles to an efficient and far-reaching implementation of Amendment 4 such as the degree of clarity and information the state will provide to newly-enfranchised individuals. This has posed problems elsewhere recently, including in Alabama and in New York.