The last time I was called for jury duty, the trial was for a young man charged with a violation of Florida Statute 790.23, otherwise known as “possession of a firearm by a convicted felon”. As with any jury selection, questions are asked of each jury member. Most of the time they are basic questions, but sometimes they delve into the weeds of things and as a potential juror you are expected to answer with 100% honesty.
As usual, I was excused during the selection process. In the past it was usually due to blatant conflicts with me sitting on the jury. Twice, I was excused within 30 minutes because I had been the 911 operator during the incident. Two other times I was familiar with the accused from my job with the state’s child support enforcement agency.
This time, I made it through the morning and was in the last group. They needed to let two more people go, and began a new round of questioning. These questions were mostly hypothetical scenarios, consisting of a lot of “Do you think”, “Would you consider”, “How likely would you be to”, etc. We were asked to be 100% truthful.
The question concerned our feelings about this law and whether we could convict someone accordingly. I don’t recall the exact framing of the question. But, I do recall my answer. Several people were called to answer before me, I don’t remember what they said.
I was struggling in my own mind. I knew what the law was, as it was read verbatim to us and then explained further by the Assistant State Attorney. But, I was conflicted. When she called my name, I knew I wasn’t going to be in the courtroom much longer, but I had to ask. I had to be honest.
“I’d like to say that I could follow the law, but I want to ask when you say felon do you mean ‘wrote a bad check felon’ or ‘assaulted a small child felon’ because to me, there is a world of difference in those two people. And I’m afraid my judgement may be clouded over putting a man in prison for having a .22 rifle after having written a bad check.”
There were several affirmative nods and grunts and within fifteen minutes, I was getting into my car, off to enjoy the rest of my day off.
Yesterday, Florida’s voters passed an amendment which will restore voting rights to felons once they’ve completed their sentences. Those convicted of sex crimes and murder are not eligible.
It didn’t have to come to this. Not to an amendment. All it took was a common sense approach to tweak 790.23 by our state legislature. But for the past eight plus years, our law makers have done absolutely nothing to move forward and away from the Jim Crow-era, hyper-partisan goat rodeo that has been our restoration process.
I am not a fan of amendments; State or Federal. They seem like a permanent solution to a temporary problem to me. An overreaction, if you will. But, when lawmakers can’t summon the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing, this is what happens. Now, there is an amendment to our State Constitution. Any tweaking to that, will be a much more tedious process.
It’s not like the legislature didn’t know how to “fix” 790.23. They had very clear, concise guidance from one of the other statutes. Chapter 960 governs the state’s victim compensation program and trust fund. Victims of crime in this state are eligible for financial assistance with medical expenses incurred due to injuries sustained as a result of a crime. This assistance also includes domestic violence relocation, burial assistance, loss of wages, catastrophic injuries, disabilities, and forensic testing for sexual assaults. But, our legislature had the foresight to place eligibility limitations on the program. It’s very simple. If you have a forcible felony conviction on your record, you are not eligible for the program.
I’ve never understood why 790.23 wasn’t tweaked to align with 960. It seemed to me a perfect framework for changing our voting rights laws. If you were “eligible” to receive up to $50,000 from the State of Florida, why in the hell weren’t you eligible to vote?
It doesn’t matter now. We have an amendment. Now, someone go make the popcorn while we sit back and wait on it to occur to the moral masses that a person that hops in a vehicle while intoxicated and kills someone, or one that mows down some kids at a bus stop while drag racing, no longer must go in front of a clemency board to get their voting rights restored. But an 18-year-old that had sex with their 15-year-old boy/girl friend does.