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Florida Legislature Proposes Automatic Restoration of Felons’ Civil Rights

by David M. Reutter

“I believe in personal redemption, that people can learn from their mistakes, and that people who take those lessons to heart and apply them to their lives deserve a second chance," proclaims Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The veracity of that proclamation is shattered by examining the actions of Florida's Clemency Board (the Board) since Bush became Governor in 1999. Since that time, the Board has rejected over 200,000 civil rights applications, the highest rejection rate in at least 16 years.

In Florida, a felony conviction results in more than the possibility of prison time, it requires the revocation of all civil rights. Loss of those rights prohibits a person from serving on a jury, changing his or her name, holding public office, obtaining state licenses for certain jobs, owning a gas station, obtaining state contracts, being eligible for bail, and owning a firearm.

Florida's prohibition on felons voting, however, has caused its clemency practices to be placed in the spotlight. Prior to the 2000 presidential election, the Board worked in obscurity. Then, Florida decided that contentious election by 537 votes. Lawsuits against the state ensued after an unknown number of legal voters were mistakenly removed from voter rolls for being suspected felons whose civil rights were not restored.

Florida's law banning felons from voting began in the 1880s when Florida and other Southern states segregated blacks and impeded their right to vote. Florida is only one of seven states that to this day continues to stripped felons of voting rights.

In 1975, Gov. Reubin Askew led the Board to decide that felons who did their time deserve to regain civil rights without having to apply. In the 1980s, crime became a political issue. That made it popular for criminals and prisoners to become fodder for tough proclamations and laws. This led Gov. Bob Martinez and Gov. Lawton Chiles to make the clemency process tougher and to reject more applications.

Former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who served 16 years on the Clemency Board under Martinez, Chiles and Bush, admits he was one of the toughest members of the Board for fear he would be attacked as soft on crime. “We have a different issue in the mix now that was never really there, the issue of voting,” says Butterworth. He now believes Floridians would support a return to automatic restoration, with some exceptions for particularly violent criminals.

In 2000, the Board enacted the most restrictive rules ever. That year, the Board restored voting rights to barely 1000 people while rejecting more than 1200 applicants who were fully qualified under the Boards rules. Rejected applications require a direct appeal to the Board. Currently 4000 people are making that appeal -- triple the number heard by the board in all of the last 16 years.

The Clemency Board is comprised of the Governor and three Cabinet members. For an application to be approved, at least three board members must vote yes. One must be the Governor. Some felons have their civil rights restored without a hearing. Under that scenario, the Parole Commission reviews criminal histories and sends the names of those eligible to the Board. If the application is denied, a hearing must be sought. At the current pace, it would take up to three decades for the Board to answer the felons who have asked to have their voting rights restored.

The backlog is bound to get longer due to tougher restrictions and the Board’s 2004 rule change. That change added 8 more crimes to the list of more than 200 crimes that prohibit felons from getting their rights back automatically without a hearing.

As the backlog of applications grew from about 6000 when Bush took office to 65,000 at its peak in 2002, Bush refused requests from his staff for more clemency investigators. Should a felon’s application actually appear before the Board, the chances are slim for restoration. Since Bush’s inauguration, the Clemency Board has denied voting rights to more than 85 percent of all applicants.

Scrutiny by mainstream media has caused Bush to rethink clemency policies. In his 2005-2006 budget request, Bush proposed spending $1.5 million to hire 40 people to help reduce the backlog of felons writing to have their civil rights restored. Clemency officials say one person can review about 100 clemency applications a year.

Civil rights advocates condemn the entire clemency process. “We’ve been spending money on a process that most states find completely unnecessary, a process that merely continues our discredited, racist past," said Courtenay Strickland, voting rights project coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Two powerful Republican lawmakers have vowed to have the Florida legislature tackle the issue. Sen. Stephan Wise, chairman of the criminal Justice committee, said the Legislature could put an amendment on the ballot that would permanently eliminate the civil rights ban if a majority of voters approve it. “I think it has great potential," said Wise. “If our committee would do it, can we could get this [idea] out of the Legislature and get it into a statewide ballot. Its time has come." Senate Majority Leader Alex Villalobos, a Republican, backs the idea. “If the Governor doesn't change it, perhaps the people of the State of Florida should get involved and change it, and I support that concept," he said.

Bush has historically rejected the idea of automatically restoring civil rights to felons, citing public safety issues among others. Bush believes the current process is fair. “It clearly doesn't help public safety to unreasonably deny reformed felons the right to vote," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach a former federal prosecutor. “I think you want reform felons back into the workplace, back into society, returning as legitimate citizens."

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