Former Felons: Restore rights in Florida

Posted: February 14, 2014 in News and politics

More than 1 million Floridians convicted of felonies remain second-class citizens long after completing their sentences. They’re unable to vote, serve on a jury or hold public office.

Florida is one of just three states that lack a simple, automatic path to civil rights restoration for former offenders. In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet imposed new restrictions making it even more difficult for ex-felons to restore their rights.

The rules force individuals to wait as long as 13 years after completing their sentences to get a hearing on having their rights restored. Even then, they have less than a 1 percent chance of having their rights restored, based on current patterns, reports the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

The coalition and clergy members gathered Jan. 17 outside the Florida Attorney General’s Tampa office to bring attention to the issue. With the nation just marking the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it’s worth noting that black voters are disproportionately disenfranchised in Florida.

Nearly one-quarter of the state’s black voting-age population was barred from casting ballots in 2010 because of a felony conviction, reports the Washington-based Sentencing Project. The Legislature’s black caucus canceled a meeting with Scott on Jan. 15, King’s actual birthday, because of the governor’s opposition to restoration of rights and other caucus priorities.

PRODUCTIVE MEMBERS OF SOCIETY

Reintegrating former felons into society helps them become productive members rather than repeat offenders. Scott has made some progress on the issue, signing a measure in 2011 that broke the link between restoration of rights, and eligibility for business and professional licenses.

But he’s framed his opposition to automatic rights restoration as helping to reduce crime, despite evidence to the contrary. A 2011 Florida Parole Commission report found felons who had their rights restored were about one-third less likely to commit another offense than those who hadn’t.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, while still in the Republican Party in 2007, convinced the Cabinet to streamline the restoration process. The changes had allowed some nonviolent offenders to regain their rights without a hearing.

In Kentucky, one of the other two states lacking automatic restoration, a ballot measure is advancing that would restore rights for some felons who completed their sentences and probation terms. Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul is among the measure’s supporters.

Florida is responsible for about one-quarter of the ex-felons across the U.S. who are barred from voting. It’s time for the state to join most of the nation in making restoration of civil rights automatic for former offenders.

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