Tuesday, 19 Oct 2021

Opinion | When It Costs $53,000 to Vote


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Photographs by Damon Winter

Text by Jesse Wegman

Mr. Winter is a staff photographer on assignment in Opinion. Mr. Wegman is a member of the editorial board.

Twenty years ago, Judy Bolden served 18 months in a Florida prison. She has been free ever since, but she is still barred from voting by the state until she pays all court fines and fees associated with her conviction.

When Ms. Bolden sat to be photographed by The Times earlier this year, she said she had received a letter informing her that her outstanding debt was a few hundred dollars. Then she checked the Volusia County website and learned that she actually owes nearly $53,000. “I was so taken aback,” she said. “I was like, What? That’s not right. I was just deflated. It’s like, when is this going to end?”

Ms. Bolden is one of more than 700,000 people in Florida who are barred from voting because they can’t afford the financial obligations stemming from a prior felony conviction. “It’s like I’m not a citizen,” she said. “That’s what they’re saying.”

Earlier this year we asked Floridians whose voting rights had been denied because of a criminal conviction to sit for photographs, wearing a name tag that lists not their name but their outstanding debt — to the extent they can determine it. This number, which many people attempt to tackle in installments as low as $30 a month, represents how much it costs them to win back a fundamental constitutional right, and how little it costs the state to withhold that right and silence the voices of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. The number also echoes the inmate identification number that they were required to wear while behind bars — another mark of the loss of rights and freedoms that are not restored upon release.

This is the way it’s been in Florida for a century and a half, ever since the state’s Constitution was amended shortly after the Civil War to bar those convicted of a felony from voting. That ban, like similar ones in many other states, was the work of white politicians intent on keeping ballots, and thus political power, out of the hands of millions of Black people who had just been freed from slavery and made full citizens.

Even as other states began reversing their own bans in recent years, Florida remained a holdout — until 2018, when Floridians overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to nearly everyone with a criminal record, upon the completion of their sentence. (Those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense were excluded.)

Democratic and Republican voters alike approved the measure, which passed with nearly two-thirds support. Immediately, as many as 1.4 million people in the state became eligible to vote. It was the biggest expansion of voting rights in decades, anywhere in the country.

That should have been the end of it. But within a year, Florida’s Republican-led Legislature gutted the reform by passing a law defining a criminal sentence as complete only after the person sentenced has paid all legal financial obligations connected to it.

The state adds insult to injury by making it difficult, if not impossible, for many of these people, like Ms. Bolden, to figure out what they owe. There is no central database with those numbers, and counties vary in their record-keeping diligence. Some convictions are so old that there are no records to be located.

This isn’t just Kafkaesque. It may well be the deciding factor in Florida elections: Donald Trump carried the state by roughly 370,000 votes in 2020, or about half the number of Floridians who are denied the right to vote because they can’t afford to pay their fines and fees.

That group includes Marq Mitchell, 30, who owed, as best as he can tell, $7,331.89 stemming from convictions back to when he was 16 years old. He wasn’t aware of the debt until he tried to register to vote and received a notice from the county’s clerk of court.

“I have no idea what I have to pay,” he said. “I just know every time I reach out, it’s a different number, and it’s increasing.”

Right now, Mr. Mitchell isn’t paying anything toward his debt. He asked the court to convert it to community service, which would translate to roughly 700 hours of work. “That would be a lot more realistic than expecting me to shovel out $7,000 while still being able to survive and eat,” he said.

For the lucky ones who can determine what they actually owe, the state layers one obstacle on top of another. It continues to add new fees for court appearances. It sells off the debt to private collection agencies, which tack on interest of up to 40 percent. Most crippling of all, it suspends the drivers’ licenses of people who miss a payment. In a state where about 90 percent of people use a car to get to work, a suspended license makes it essentially impossible for people to earn the money they need to pay their fines and fees.

“The last four times I’ve been to jail has been because of driving on a suspended license,” Daniel Bullins said. Mr. Bullins, 42, lives in Melbourne, and served about two years in prison.

“The sad part is my mom doesn’t like cops now, and that breaks my heart. She’s 70, there’s no reason for her not to like cops, except for seeing what I’ve gone through,” he said.

Mr. Bullins went to the courthouse to pay down his debt, only to learn that it had been sold off to a private collection agency that charges 25 percent interest. “How are you going to sell somebody’s agony to a company and compound it?” Mr. Bullins asked. “It feels like that’s what they want: some way to pull you back in. It’s like ‘Goodfellas.’ You get away and they bring you back in.

“When prisons became big business, every part of the system became big business,” Mr. Bullins went on. “The whole tower is built on misery.”

Sergio Thornton has been out of prison since 2012, but he still owed about $20,000 when he was photographed — “all fines and fees, just for selling $40 worth of drugs,” he said. His original debt was more than double that amount, upward of $40,000, as he recalls.

“I’m sitting in the courtroom, telling the judge that the only way I could come up with that kind of money is to commit another crime,” Mr. Thornton said. He is currently raising three girls and said he is supposed to be paying $60 a month toward his legal debt, “but with school coming and rent, you got to pick which bill to pay.” When he fell three months behind in legal debt payments, his license was suspended. The day before he spoke to The Times, he had been laid off from a landscaping job that paid him $13 an hour.

For many, paying thousands of dollars in legal debt isn’t worth the price. “I’m not paying them nothing,” Frank Summerville, a 34-year-old father of four living in Cocoa, said. “I’m not going to give them a dollar. I gave them four years of my life.” Mr. Summerville got out of prison in 2016 and now works as a mechanic and boat builder. He is qualified to work on airplanes and helicopters, but says he can’t get the clearance required to work at airports because of his convictions. He refuses to pay down his debt and get trapped in a system that seems designed to thwart him. “Why are we going to take our savings and dump it into something that ain’t going to make a difference?”

Aniesha Lynn Austin, 48, hasn’t been paying her debt of almost $600, either, primarily because she can’t figure out how to. “I didn’t even know I owed this until I was actually released off parole,” she said. Ms. Austin served 27 years in prison before her release in March 2019. She has worked as a sales manager and as the vice president of Change Comes Now, a nonprofit organization that provides services to people coming out of prison. “We’re still trying to find the actual link to pay it. It is from 1996. Trying to is half the battle.”

Raquel Wright, 46, of Vero Beach, has been out for seven years and owed more than $54,000 when she was photographed. While on work-release, the state withheld 55 percent of her wages — she earned $8.50 per hour, at AT&T — to cover her room and board, and a smaller percentage to pay down her legal debt. But she hasn’t been able to get a full-time job since she got home, in part because she doesn’t pass background checks, so she has not kept up with payments. With money tight and a 16-year-old daughter at home, other considerations come first. “I have her day-to-day care: feeding, clothing, basic needs. I have our phone bills. I have my car insurance. I have medical bills.” As for the legal debt, Ms. Wright said, “I’m never going to be able to pay that off in my lifetime. Especially now, being that my employment is hindered with this charge. I’m always told I’m overqualified or I didn’t pass the background check.”

For some people, getting out from under their legal debt is closer to being a reality. Alan Grate, 59, had just started a job building boats when he spoke to The Times. “I started out at $14.45 an hour, get a raise every 90 days. I ain’t never in my life had a job making that kind of money,” Mr. Grate said. He owes $1,219.50 in court fines and fees after serving 14 and a half years in prison, and pays $94 a month toward his debt. “At my age, I need to be able to go 10 years straight. I need that Social Security. That’s one of my goals: buying a house. I don’t want to pay rent all my life. I don’t know how much time I got left on this earth.”

Then there are the people whose debt is so massive they are effectively barred from voting not just in this life, but for many lifetimes after. Karen Leicht, 64, faced 50 years behind bars for a minor role in an insurance fraud and money laundering scheme that involved several co-defendants. Eventually she negotiated her sentence down to 30 months, which she served, but she could not negotiate the restitution — more than $59 million. Trying to pay down an amount of that size is “an exercise that’s meaningless,” she said. “When the judge sentenced me and he was deciding what to put for the amount, he said, ‘It doesn’t matter what you pay monthly, you will never pay it off.’ He didn’t even put a monthly amount in.”

At this point, voting is the least of Ms. Leicht’s concerns. “I am 64. There’s no possibility that I could ever retire because they took everything I had, including my condo. If I don’t work, that’s it,” she said.

Even relatively small debts can be permanently disenfranchising for people who simply don’t bring in enough money to pay them off. General Peterson, 63, served a total of three and a half years on three convictions and believes he still owes around $1,100 in fees. He is retired and using his Social Security check to make monthly payments of $30 on the debt. “You want to help me pay it? That’d be fine with me,” he said.

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