Paying court fees not simple for felons

This Letter to the Editor originally appeared in The Daily Progress.

The Daily Progress editorial of Oct. 29, “A monetary issue with felon rights,” raises questions about proposals to eliminate the requirement that ex-offenders seeking to have their voting rights restored must, among other pre-requisites, be up to date on their payment of court costs and fines.

The editorial suggests that eliminating this requirement relieves people with felony convictions of their responsibility to pay their debt to society, and that it pursues “further leniency in forgiving fines altogether….” 

This is not our position. Court fines and costs simply shouldn’t be a factor in whether or not the governor restores an individual’s right to vote. Restoring voting rights does not mean that the individual’s debt should be eliminated. It means that their civil rights should not be held as collateral for payment of a debt.

Paying court costs and fines is not always as simple as it sounds. Participants in Charlottesville’s 2010 Dialogue on Race recognized that criminal convictions pose a barrier of “paramount significance” to individuals seeking employment. For individuals struggling to find work, food and shelter, satisfying one’s financial debt to the courts remains ever elusive. 

Requiring individuals to “pay in full,” without consideration of the many barriers people with felony convictions face in meeting their basic needs, isn’t good policy. By contrast, restoring voting rights sends the message that citizens who want a second chance are welcome as members of our communities. Research shows this helps to reintegrate individuals back into society, preventing future crimes. We don’t withhold a person’s right to religious freedom or freedom of speech until they pay off court ordered costs. We shouldn’t withhold the right to vote either.