STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Starting today, a federal trial considers voting rights for people who have felony convictions. Two years ago, Florida voters passed an amendment reinstating voting rights for people who complete their sentences. Then the state Legislature passed a law that said people must also pay all their fines and fees and restitution before getting back the right to vote. As Danny Rivero of our member station WLRN reports, this has now become a major civil rights case watched across the country.
DANNY RIVERO, BYLINE: Imagine two identical crimes with two identical sentences, but one defendant has money and the other one doesn't, so when it comes time to pay a fine or restitution to complete the sentence, the person with money pays up no problem. The other person can't. This dilemma is at the center of the federal case.
LISA FOSTER: We should never in a democracy be trading votes for dollars. And that is effectively what the Legislature has done.
RIVERO: Lisa Foster is a co-founder of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. It's a national group that's looking to take money out of the criminal justice system. Ahead of the November election that Florida could play a key role in, the federal case has reached class-action status. So if the plaintiffs win, the state could potentially gain hundreds of thousands of new eligible voters.
FOSTER: The judge's insistence on moving forward means the judge recognizes this is a very important case, and it's important to decide it before the November election.
RIVERO: The argument that Florida's discriminating against people based on their wealth misses the mark, says Christian Adams. He's president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a group that backs Florida in the case.
CHRISTIAN ADAMS: There's a whole lot of crime victims in Florida - regular people, sometimes people in the communities hardest-hit by crime - that aren't ever going to get the restitution if the plaintiffs have their way.
RIVERO: The plaintiffs argue that bringing money into the equation effectively creates a lifetime sentence for crimes they've tried to move on from. Betty Riddle is one of the plaintiffs in the case.
BETTY RIDDLE: They know we can't pay it, and that's what really hurt me the most and made me angry, because they know we can't pay it.
RIVERO: Thirty states require people with felony convictions to pay what they owe before they get back the right to vote. And that means many states have filed briefs in support of Florida's arguments, including Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and Utah. Jason Snead is the executive director for the Honest Elections Project, a group that backs Florida in the case.
JASON SNEAD: I suspect that one of the concerns that states have as they're watching this case is the fear that precedent will be set that they will not be able to properly enforce their criminal codes as they see fit.
RIVERO: Federal trials are usually not recorded or broadcast, but because of the coronavirus, the trial will be held virtually, and the public will be able to listen in.
For NPR News, I'm Danny Rivero in Miami.
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