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Florida's Parole Commission Slows Restoration of Felons' Civil Rights

by David M. Reutter

In April 2007, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and his Cabinet made it easier for some felons to regain their civil rights, including their right to vote. The new rules automatically restore rights to non-violent offenders and provide quicker reviews for other felons.

The new rules create three categories for rights restoration. There is automatic restoration for non-violent offenders who have completed all terms of their sentence, including payment of restitution. Then there are violent offenders who committed crimes ranging from aggravated stalking and computer pornography to manslaughter, who require an investigation and clemency board approval. Lastly, a full investigation and clemency review hearing is required for those convicted of murder and sex offenses.

Offenders are screened by two state agencies, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) and the Florida Parole Commission (FPC). Under Florida law, the FDOC must assist prisoners with civil rights restoration upon release. [See: PLN, March 2003, p.35]. The FDOC has identified 298,000 ex-prisoners who are potentially eligible for restoration of rights under the new rules. On a regular basis the FDOC compiles a list of the 3,000 people released from prison each month who are entitled to restoration reviews.

The list then goes to the FPC, which has narrowly survived attempts by the Florida Legislature to abolish the agency in two of the last three years. Abolishment was considered because only 5,500 prisoners are eligible for parole in Florida. Those prisoners are either serving sentences imposed before Florida adopted a guideline sentencing structure in 1983, or have been convicted of First Degree Murder or Capital Sexual Battery prior to October 1, 1994, resulting in life sentences without parole for 25 years.

Once the lists are received from the FDOC, the FPC then makes a determination of the felon's eligibility under the rules -- whether restitution has been paid, if there are any outstanding warrants, or if new crimes have been committed -- before making a recommendation to the Governor and Cabinet.

Since April 2007, more than 34,440 felons have had their rights restored. The FPC says it processes about 7,000 cases per month, but there is still a backlog of over 100,000 cases pending review. The FPC has found that as many as one-third of the people on FDOC's lists should not be there, which has left the FDOC baffled.

"I do not understand your error rate of 28.8%," wrote FDOC employee Tina Hayes in an August 20, 2007 e-mail to FPC officials. Two weeks later, Hayes said in a follow-up message that "if the error rate is going up as stated then this is [all] the more reason I need the error messages" to determine the problem.

"This just highlights the shortcomings of these new rules," noted Muslima Lewis, an ACLU attorney and director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. "They're so cumbersome, so bureaucratic and so prone to human error that some of the efficiencies we hoped for are not going to be seen."

The FDOC, for its part, has trained about 200 staffers to review old cases to weed out ex-felons who have died, moved out of state, committed new crimes or simply shouldn't have been on the list in the first place.
The goal of then FDOC Secretary James McDonough is to ensure that restoration will occur to allow those eligible under the rules to vote in Florida's January 29, 2008 presidential primary.

That goal contrasts with the mission of the FPC, which has justified its existence over the years by performing clemency work and investigations. The restoration reviews currently being done by the FPC and the FDOC are duplicative. Moreover, the FDOC is more readily equipped to determine the legal status, location and restitution payments of ex-prisoners by virtue of its probation system, which tracks such things.

"It can always be better," said Gov. Crist. "We continue to chip away at it and work at it. It's a new day in Florida."

The state hopefully will avoid the fiasco that occurred during the 2000 presidential election, when hundreds of thousands of Florida citizens were barred from the polls due to criminal convictions and thousands of people without felony records were wrongly removed from voting lists.
[See: PLN, May 2001, p.22]. Similar problems occurred during the 2004 presidential election. [See: PLN, March 2003, p.11]. Time will tell if such issues have been resolved in the Sunshine State.

Source: St. Petersburg Times

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