The last thing senior paralegal Karen Leicht ever imagined was that she would serve three years in prison for a felony charge.
“It is a huge skeleton in the closet,” Leicht said after speaking on a panel organized by the Greater Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Miami branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a group of public defenders at the Palmetto Bay public library on Sunday.
As Florida voters face the possibility of up to 12 constitutional amendments on their ballots this November, several organizations have launched efforts to educate citizens on what's at stake in each of them.
The discussion about Amendment Four quickly became personal when Leicht took the stand. She’s fighting for people to vote yes on this constitutional measure, which would restore voting eligibility rights for Floridians who have completed the terms of their sentences. Florida is one of only four states that still bans convicted felons from the polls for life.
After serving time for conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and money laundering, Leicht said she was surprised to have her voting rights stripped away.
“I immediately took off my cloak of shame and decided even if it meant letting people know what I am, that I would do it because it’s worth it. This is a cause worth standing up for,” she said.
Leicht talked about the daily barriers that face “returning citizens,” or felons.
“That’s the box that you check when you apply for a job. That’s what keeps you from getting a loan,” she said. “That’s the reason why your bank tells you you’re no longer a customer. Even though you’ve been with them ever since you got out - that’s happened to me twice. I’ve had two banks tell me I’m not the kind of customer they want.”
Now she works as a senior paralegal for the firm Scott R. Dinin, P.A. in Wynwood. Leicht said she focuses on training and hiring people who served time and who are forced to check the felon box on most job applications.
“I get them trained up to be paralegals because one thing I’ve found is that the legal profession does not have the same stigma as other professions or businesses in hiring someone who is a convicted felon,” she said.
Miami-Dade County Public Defender Carlos Martinez also spoke in favor of Amendment Four, mentioning the numbers at stake.
"About 1.4 million in the state of Florida do not have the right to vote that will be affected by this amendment. That’s a tremendous number," he said. "About a third of that number is African Americans. But the biggest problem is it is double their population in the state of Florida. So disproportionately, they have been disenfranchised more than others."
Amendment Four, he said, is a critical aspect to our Democracy.
Other amendments discussed by panelists were six and 11. Both controversial amendments bundle many proposals into one simple yes or no vote for Floridians.
According to the League of Women Voters of Florida, supporting Amendment 6 would expand the scope of victims rights under the state Constitution, raise the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices and judges from 70 to 75, and prohibit courts and judges from deferring to an administrative agency’s interpretation of state laws when deciding cases.
But during the panel on Sunday, Melba Pearson, deputy director of the ACLU of Florida, talked about how the ACLU opposes Amendment Six, calling it “misleading.”
“There’s been a lot of misinformation about whether it really does expand victims rights in Florida,” Pearson said.
The panel discussed how Amendment 6, also known as Marsy’s Law, would actually delete the part of the constitution that balances the rights of all involved in a criminal case. According to the ACLU, it would create an opening for corporations to inject themselves into criminal cases, even during minor crimes.
The panelists also supported another bundled list of proposals in Amendment 11, which would delete a provision stating “aliens” can’t own property. It would also allow criminal justice reforms to apply retroactively, Pearson said.
“When we talk about retroactivity, let me give you an example -- let’s say as we’re looking across the country, many states are legalizing marijuana for recreational use,” she said. “So let’s say today a new law passes that make recreational marijuana legal in Florida. What about the people who are currently sitting in jail or prison as a result of recreational marijuana not being legal? Shouldn’t they now get the benefit of this new law?”