The Current State of Civil Rights Restoration in Florida—An Unfair Divide?
On March 9th, 2011 the Florida Executive Clemency Board amended the rules allowing restoration of civil rights to ex-felons. Non-violent offenders now have to wait 5 years from the time their sentence is completed to apply for restoration of their rights to vote, sit on a jury, and hold public office. For violent offenders, the wait time is 7 years. At that time ex-offenders may apply to the Clemency Board to have their civil rights restored. Prior to Governor Rick Scott's changes to the civil rights restoration laws, former Florida Governor Charlie Crist had put an end to the 140-year-old practice of permanent disenfranchisement for ex-felons. Under his changes, the rights of non-violent offenders were automatically restored upon completion of their sentences. According to the most recent data provided by The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that promotes reforms in the criminal justice system, there are 1,541,602 disenfranchised felons in Florida and 520,521 are African-Americans. Considering the high percentage of minority offenders, it is clear to see why so many are outraged over Governor Scott's changes to the civil rights restoration laws. From 2007-2011, under Crist's government, 154,178 people regained their civil rights. In the past two years, less than 400 restorations have been approved, and it is estimated that by 2014, Florida polls could be absent an astounding 600,000 people who would otherwise have voted.
Florida's Disenfranchisement History
Florida's Constitution states that felons are banned from voting for life, unless the governor and the cabinet grant restoration of their civil rights. This provision was enacted in 1868 and often criticized as a post-Civil War means of suppressing the votes of newly freed slaves. One hundred years later, in 1968, another time period fraught with civil unrest, the state decided to uphold these laws. Until 2007, Florida was only one of three states in the nation that permanently disenfranchised all of its ex-felons. Former Governor Charlie Crist automatically restored civil rights to non-violent offenders during his term, but Rick Scott has taken steps back in time by reversing this decision. Many critics claim that today's all-Republican Executive Clemency Board is attempting to sway votes by extending the wait time to restore the civil rights of ex-felons, many of whom are black and Democrats. This happens to come at another time in America's history when racial-political tensions seem to be very evident. Florida's voter suppression past rises to the forefront today as many people express their anger and frustration over the disenfranchisement of what some claim are entire communities.
Effects of Felon Disenfranchisement
According to the Florida Parole Commission's 2010-2011 Clemency Action Report, civil rights were restored to 5,719 people in 2010. Only 11.4% returned to a life of crime. In 2011, only 52 people regained their civil rights. According to the report, none of the 52 cases entered the criminal justice system again, but many people never even received the chance to prove themselves. Additionally, comments such as those made by Republican Senator Mike Bennett have angered many people further:
"Do you read the stories about the people in Africa? The people in the desert, who literally walk two and three hundred miles so they can have the opportunity to do what we do, and we want to make it more convenient? How much more convenient do you want to make it?" he said.
Incidentally, Senator Bennet's story received a "Pants on Fire" rating from PolitiFact Florida. After consulting with African election experts and officials, it was determined that Africans literally do not walk two and three hundred miles to vote, nor do they cross the desert.
Even though the Florida Parole Commission's reports show a low incidence of repeat criminal activity, or recidivism, following automatic restoration of civil rights, these facts have failed to sway Governor Scott.
"Gov. Scott believes that for convicted felons to re-enter civic society, they must demonstrate a commitment to remaining crime-free as well as a willingness to request to have their rights restored," spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said.
This is a reasonable expectation, to be sure, but many rehabilitated ex-felons feel they are being subjected to more than their fair share of having to prove themselves. Walter McNeil, former Department of Corrections Secretary and a proponent of automatic restoration of civil rights said, "By saying you have to wait five years, what you’re saying is that person is going to have to crawl and scratch their way back into society....The more years you push that out, the less likely they are to succeed."
Speaking for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), actor Charles Dutton said, “What people don’t realize...is once a person decides that they want to register to vote, they want to go down and make their voice be heard, that is part and parcel of being rehabilitated.” Dutton speaks from experience. The Maryland-born actor, who dropped out before finishing middle school, spent several years in prison for violent crimes. While sentenced to solitary confinement for six days, he was allowed to bring one book to occupy his time. He accidentally grabbed an anthology of black playwrights and discovered his passion. He created a drama group of inmates with the permission of the warden—on one condition: He had to promise to get his GED. After his release, he was true to his word. He got his GED, went to community college, and eventually earned his masters in acting from Yale. From criminal past to prominent, respected citizen, Dutton is a shining example of one ex-felon who earned his place in the community. Shouldn't more be given the same chance to take responsibility for their lives and the opportunity to contribute to society?
The Current Civil Rights Restoration Process
As Governor Rick Scott's next election looms in the distance, he has hinted he may reconsider the amendment to the restoration laws, but for now, his decision holds firm. The current process stands as such:
- You must complete your sentence and wait the required time period, either 5 or 7 years, depending on the type of crime committed. A Seal & Expunge Attorney can reliably answer your questions pertaining to your waiting period.
- After your waiting period, you can apply for a review before the Clemency Board with or without a hearing. Some applicants, based on the type of crime committed, may be required to attend a review with a hearing.
- If the Board denies restoration of civil rights in a review without a hearing, you may apply for a review with a hearing, but any decision made at that point restricts you from applying for further clemency for two years.
- When it is time for you to apply for your review, you will need to provide a certified copy of your conviction along with your application. Letters of recommendation from employers, church leaders, and volunteer organizations may help your case.
- It can be months before you will hear anything, but if your case requires a hearing, you will be scheduled to meet with an Examiner of the Florida Parole Commission, who will interview you and may even contact people you know to get more information about you.
- If your application was granted and your case required a hearing, you will receive a copy of an Executive Order signed by the Clemency Board Members. If your case did not require a hearing, you will be mailed a Certificate of Restoration of Civil Rights.
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