Court official: antiquated court records present a challenge to felons seeking the right to vote

Voting booths are set up on the campus of University of South Florida as workers prepare to open the doors to early voters on October 22, 2018, in Tampa. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Felons with older convictions seeking to have their voting rights restored in Hillsborough County may have to rely on a system that once kept critical records in a shoebox, a top court official testified Wednesday.

Douglas Bakke, the chief operations officer for the Hillsborough County Clerk of the Court’s office, said the courts kept records related to felony case costs, legal fees and payments in a shoebox during the 1970s and into the 1980s, when the court began moving its records to an electronic system.

In a federal trial, where civil rights groups are challenging a 2019 law that requires felons to pay all their court-related costs before having their voting rights restored, Bakke said the status of the older records would make it more difficult for felons to find out how much they still owed on their cases or prove how much they had paid.

The former felons have won the right to have their voting rights restored once they complete their sentences under Amendment 4, a measure passed by Florida voters in 2018.

Under questioning from lawyers representing the state, Bakke conceded more recent cases would allow felons to quickly check their outstanding financial obligations since the records are online.

But he said older cases would require court workers to spend hours retrieving the documents from remote storage and then evaluating them.

Noting Hillsborough County has had some 100,000 felony convictions in the decade leading up to 2018, Bakke said the clerk’s office would be “overwhelmed” if a large group of those felons sought to resolve any questions about unpaid court costs, fines and restitution.

Under questioning from lawyers for the civil rights groups, who allege the 2019 law creates an unconstitutional “wealth test” for former felons, Bakke also testified that about 80 percent of the Hillsborough County felony cases involve public defenders, who represent indigent clients.

Bakke also said he agreed with a 2019 study from the state Legislature’s Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability that showed the typical first- or second-degree felony case generated $5,214 in fines and fees for the convicted felons.

The report also showed the full amount of the financial obligations were rarely collected, with the statewide court system showing a 9.31 percent collection rate in 2017-18.

Amanda Weinstein, an economist from the University of Akron, testified that the imposition of thousands of dollars in court fees was a major burden for minority women who have felony convictions.

She presented a report showed black and Hispanic women who spend time in prison earn an average hourly wage of 52 cents, compared to every $1 earned by white males who never served prison time. Hispanic and black males with prison time earned 63 cents, the report showed.

“What my research suggests is that because women of color face wage penalties for their race, and face wage penalties for their gender, that they would be at a disadvantage toward paying any type of financial restitution and would be less able to pay those financial restitutions in order to regain their voting status,” Weinstein said.

Sheila Singleton, an African-American woman from Jacksonville, testified that she owes $16,384.13 in court costs, restitution and interest from a 2011 felony conviction that she cannot pay.

Singleton said she is disabled and works part-time for a Democratic Party voter-registration group and could only afford to pay about $50 a month, which would mean it would take more than two decades to pay off her debt.

Under questioning from George Meros, a lawyer representing Gov. Ron DeSantis, Singleton confirmed that she had been convicted of exploitation of an aged adult for more than $100,000.

Meros said under the provisions of her conviction, Singleton could ask the victim’s family for forgiveness that could eliminate the restitution payment.

Singleton said she was not aware of that until Meros told her about it during a prior deposition in Jacksonville. She said she had not reached out to family because of the length of time that has passed and that she did not know where the family lived.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who will ultimately decide the question of the constitutionality of the 2019 law, is presiding over the case in Tallahassee.