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Legislature Says Criminals Must Pay Full Restitution for Voting-Rights Restoration

A proposed law to require that felons pay all their fines and court costs before getting their voting rights restored is headed to the governor’s desk.

The measure breezed through the Senate Wednesday, a stark contrast to the gale-force debate that howled up in the House last week.

The bill, SB 440/HB 09690, was sponsored by Rep. Joe McCord and Sen. Doug Overbey, both Maryville Republicans.

In the House, McCord and the bill were accused of aiming to disenfranchise voters who traditionally lean Democrat, and for placing a higher political premium on revenue collections than civil rights and “equal justice.”

“I agree that we should have restitution, but what I don’t agree with is when your income or lack thereof causes inequity in our system, and that’s exactly what this does,” said Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis. “This is not equal justice. We are talking about people who have paid their debt (through incarceration), and now we are going to make a decision based on their ability to vote on how much money they have.”

Added Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, “Basically we’re saying if you’ve got the money, and you can pay, you can have your rights restored, but if you don’t have the money…you cannot.”

Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat, wondered if the bill was part of “an overall Republican Party effort to disenfranchise people,” citing similar bills being offered in Washington and other states.

Supporters of the measure countered that critics seemed more concerned with getting ex-cons in ballot booths than with ensuring that criminals are made to repay their victims and reimburse taxpayers for the full costs of their misdeeds.

The issues in the bill have “nothing to do with whether you’re rich or poor,” said McCord. He likened it to a bill passed a few years ago that requires a person to be caught up on child support.

“It’s (about) a convicted felon and failure to pay court costs,” he said.

State and Local Government Committee chairman Curry Todd was among those who expressed agitation with the arguments put forward by opponents of the bill.

“Why don’t we let the cops give out a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card to everybody who makes under a certain income?” asked the Collierville Republican. “Do we not have any sympathy for the victims out there? We’re one of the top states in the nation in violent crimes. Why should (felons’ rights) be restored? I’m tired of everybody being so damn sympathetic to the criminals.”

House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol later added that as a result of felons not paying fines and court costs, “The victims and the taxpayers are paying those court costs, so the victims are being victimized twice.”

After nearly 50 minutes of debate that included members of both sides of the aisle being ruled “out of order,” House Speaker Kent Williams asked the members to wrap up the debate.

“I don’t what more can be said about this,” he said.

It passed on a vote of 69-23.

The bill had passed the House May 17 on a vote of 72-18, but McCord had to bring it up for another vote last week because the original bill as passed incorrectly gave the Board of Probation and Parole the ability to declare a person indigent rather than the courts.

The Senate unanimously agreed to the amendment on Wednesday.