How One Voice Changed Florida's Political Calculus

An Interview with Desmond Meade

Elí Salomón Contreras
Desmond Meade is the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People for 2019.

Desmond Meade is the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People for 2019.

Brandi Hill

What’s the hardest thing you have ever done in life? What do you name among your greatest accomplishments? How will you be remembered after you’re gone? To each of us, life has dealt a different set of circumstances that have shaped us to become who we are and have influenced our drive and passions. Although we each face differing circumstances, we share the ability to overcome obstacles and leave a worthwhile legacy.

This was, and continues to be, true for Desmond Meade, a graduate of Florida International University College of Law, the current executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), and an honoree for Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People for 2019. Desmond is also a former homeless person, a former drug addict, and a formerly incarcerated person. Through his efforts, Desmond helped pass Amendment 4 to Florida’s constitution in 2018, which restored voting rights to approximately 1.4 million Floridians who had previous felony convictions. Below, Desmond shares his thoughts on his law degree, leading a grassroots citizens’ initiative, FRRC’s work, and advice for young lawyers, men of color, and anyone who wants to make change.

Why did you pursue a law degree? 

Through my work before law school, I had an understanding that law is intertwined in every aspect of our lives. I figured the more I learned about the law, the better position I would be in to be an effective advocate and help folks. That was my motivation.

How has your law degree helped you in your work?

It’s a great credential to have. As a person who was formerly homeless and hooked on drugs, to say that I have a law degree is a source of inspiration to people out there struggling who may not have hope. They can achieve big things. It serves as a good marker for people in that position, and to help the least among us in society. Folks can’t say convicts can’t amount to anything.

What does a typical day look like for Desmond Meade?

Lots of phone calls, emails, and community outreach. Our overall mission is how to make our community a better place to live. Our theory of change is: people closest to pain are typically closest to the solution. As someone who has caused harm in the past, I think there’s an obligation for me to be committed to improving conditions in my community. My day-to-day is geared around what can I do to help increase public safety, decrease recidivism, and remove barriers for successful reentry.

Why should people care about your work? 

That’s an easy question. We’ve always heard the adage: the chain is only as strong as the weakest link. That applies to a state, to our country. If we want our country to be stronger, we need to empower the weakest among us. Being able to reform the criminal justice system, and reform the reentry system, benefits everyone. This country spends a ton of money on the criminal justice system, money that could have been used on education, infrastructure, healthcare, and other areas of need.

Why do returning citizens (i.e., formerly incarcerated people) deserve their voting rights restored? 

They paid their debt. They are American citizens. Every American citizen deserves to have his or her voice heard.

What challenges did you face to get Amendment 4 passed? 

Initially, we had no funding. That was huge. It made it hard to get the word out. It was a blessing at the same time because it gave us the opportunity to create a massive grassroots effort, which was the major driving force behind Amendment 4.

 

Before this campaign, did you have experience running a ballot initiative? 

I was a rookie (haha)! I didn’t have the experience, but this was not something I could walk away from. This issue intimately impacted my life. What added to that was meeting folks throughout Florida from all walks of life who were also impacted. That personal experience and connection with others made up for my lack of experience in running a ballot initiative.

What was the response to Amendment 4 being passed? 

Overall, folks were very excited. It gave a lot of hope and restored trust in our system. Folks saw that their votes counted. Amendment 4 was something that people from all walks of life could embrace and support. There were shared values: when a debt is paid, it’s paid, and everyone wants to be forgiven at some point in life. I didn’t hear any sour apples. For the most part, I heard that people were moved and inspired by what we did and how we did it.

How does FRRC help returning citizens restore their voting rights? 

A returning citizen must complete all portions of their sentence ordered by a judge. FRRC will be holding workshops in partnership with other organizations to make sure that people have an accurate account of their sentence, and they have completed all portions of their sentence so we can register them to vote.

What do you say to a returning citizen who doesn’t want to vote?

I would talk about how there have been so many sacrifices made in our country’s history for people to have the right to vote. That right is something that should be treasured. As recently as last year, many people across all spectrums came together to have that person vote. That deserves respect. The other thing: the issues that he may be facing in life are connected to voting. As long as he doesn’t vote, he doesn’t have a voice to change the conditions he’s in. He can choose to remain silent and continue to suffer, or use his voice and bring about change.

How is FRRC responding to the legislation that was introduced, which would require ex-felons to pay all court fees and fines before being allowed to vote? 

Amendment 4 accomplished what it set out to do: remove the lifetime ban from voting in Florida. The legislature has not disturbed that right. There was always a belief that there was going to be a financial obligation associated with completing a sentence. This legislation that’s out there attempted to address that. We’re excited about moving forward and registering people. There’s a significant number of returning citizens who would not be impacted by this legislation. We’re also excited about working with people who have fines and fees to get them back into court and address those fines and fees to remove that barrier.

Are there any anticipated court battles ahead? If so, what will be the issues? 

We’re in the wait-and-see mode. Right now, our number one priority is getting out there and getting people registered to vote. We will evaluate as time goes on.

How else does FRRC create a more comprehensive reentry system for returning citizens? 

This past legislative session, we successfully worked with legislators to raise felony threshold limits. Before the session, people were eligible for a felony conviction if they stole something of $300 or more. In most states, the amounts are in between $1200-1500. We raised it to $750 for a person to be convicted of a felony for theft. We’ve also removed barriers to people getting jobs. Before the last legislative session, incarcerated people could learn a trade (e.g., barber), but then once released, they couldn’t be hired. We worked to change the process for obtaining occupational licenses.

How much spotlight will the issue of letting incarcerated people vote get in the 2020 elections? 

Probably a lot of spotlight because of what happened in Florida, and Florida is important in federal elections. Presidential candidates shouldn’t focus on state voting, but rather on federal legislation that can impact voting in federal elections.

What role do young lawyers play in your work?

Being able to volunteer, and not getting caught up in the daily grind. They need to understand they have a level of expertise to help people in their communities.

What wisdom do you have for men of color going into the legal profession? 

They’re in a good position to change some of the negative stereotypes and narratives about people of color. They’re also in a good position to be an inspiration to so many others. Being in that position is something that should be treated with reverence. It is a position of honor.

What’s your advice to people who want to do something about a cause? 

First, determine if what they’re doing is a contribution. They must be willing to make sacrifices and have the capability of staying laser-focused on their mission. If not, chances of them being successful are greatly reduced. If you want to bring about change, no matter the issue, it takes commitment, sacrifice, and focusing on achieving the outcomes you want.

How did you overcome low points in your life, and how can others facing low points get back on their feet? 

At the end of the day, what helped me get back on my feet was a commitment to giving back to others. I made it more about others around me. Community service and giving back is essential, not only for growth but also for recovery for a person who has fallen. Think more about others than yourself. Seek to serve. When you do that, everything works out.

What’s the best advice you have ever received? 

Not to expect anyone to have the same passion that you have when you’re following your vision because no one else has that vision but you.

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Elí Salomón Contreras

Elí Salomón Contreras is an attorney licensed in California.