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115,000 Florida Ex-Felons Have Civil Rights Restored Under New Rules

Changes to Florida’s rules for restoration of civil rights were made in April 2007; since that time, 115,232 former felons have had their rights to vote, serve on juries, run for office, and obtain various business licenses restored. That number accounts for more than half of all the state’s felons who have regained their rights.

This recent increase in restoration of rights is a victory for civil rights activists and Governor Charlie Crist, who fulfilled a campaign promise to end the Jim Crow era rules pertaining to former felons. Under the old rules, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency had to review every application for restoration of rights, resulting in only about 7,000 restorations annually due to the time-intensive process.

The new rules automatically restore rights for non-violent ex-offenders so long as they have completed probation, have no pending criminal charges, and have paid all restitution and court costs. The success of the rule change was touted by Gov. Crist at a Restoration of Rights summit sponsored by the Florida Department of Corrections with a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“Once somebody has truly paid their debt to society, we should recognize it,” said Crist. “We should welcome them back into society and give them that second chance. Who doesn’t deserve a second chance?”

While critics have condemned the restrictions on restoring rights for violent offenders, it should be recognized that Gov. Crist tried to have the new rules apply to all ex-felons but was forced to compromise by his Cabinet. An attempt to change Florida’s rules for restoration of civil rights through litigation was unsuccessful following an adverse ruling from the Eleventh Circuit in 2006. [See: PLN, Oct. 2006, p.41].

The new rules represent a major step forward – one that has restored rights to over 115,000 former felons in advance of the November elections. This is a monumental change from the situation in Florida in 2000, when mass purges of felons – as well as many citizens who had no criminal records – from the voting rolls was a significant factor in that year’s presidential election. [See: PLN, May 2001, p.22; March 2003, p.11].

Gov. Crist further signed Executive Order 08-179 in August 2008, which requires the Office of Executive Clemency and the Florida Parole Commission to use “all ... available resources to notify those whose civil rights have been restored,” to ensure they know they have the right to vote. Pressure from civil rights organizations, including the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, was a contributing factor in the Governor’s decision to pursue restoration of rights for former felons.

However, some activists criticized the late action by Gov. Crist, who issued the Executive Order just five weeks before the deadline for registering to vote for the November elections. “This was a lost opportunity. Had he issued [the Order] when we asked him to do so more than eight months ago, thousands more Floridians would have benefited,” stated Muslima Lewis, director of the Florida ACLU’s Racial Justice and Voting Rights Projects.

Regardless, more work needs to be done in Florida. Many non-violent former felons have not yet have their rights restored; others who have regained their rights have not been notified. According to an analysis by the St. Petersburg Times, only 10 percent of non-violent former felons who had their rights restored by the end of May 2008 had registered to vote.

Sources: St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald, newsmax.com

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