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Florida Reenacts Reconstruction-Era Felon Disenfranchisement Rule

On March 9, 2011, Florida’s executive clemency board unanimously voted to make it more difficult for ex-felons to have their civil rights restored – including the right to vote, sit on a jury and hold public office. Rather than automatic restoration upon completing their sentence, ex-felons convicted of non-violent offenses will have to remain crime-free for five years before they can apply to regain their rights (seven years for violent offenders, who must also have a hearing before the board).

The vote by the clemency board reversed the automatic restoration of civil rights for non-violent offenders that was put into effect in 2007 by the administration of former Governor Charlie Crist. Upholding a campaign promise, Crist changed a rule enacted during the Reconstruction era to prevent former slaves from voting and integrating into society. Almost two in 10 African Americans in Florida are ineligible to vote due to the state’s disenfranchisement rule.

According to the Florida Parole Commission, approximately 154,000 ex-offenders had their rights restored under the 2007 rule change despite insufficient funding for the Commission, which handles non-automatic restoration petitions. [See: PLN, July 2010, p.16]. Many Republicans were perturbed about Crist’s rule change because of the more than 100,000 people who registered to vote after having their civil rights restored, many were presumed to be Democrat-leaning African Americans.

With such voters being a key target demographic for the Obama administration, the recent reinstatement of the Reconstruction-era disenfranchisement rule by Florida’s executive clemency board may have national political ramifications.

“It clearly has the effect of suppressing the vote as we go into a presidential election cycle,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.

However, the administration of current Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott, who is a member of the executive clemency board, painted the change as a law-and-order initiative.

The rule change was proposed by newly-elected Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a former county prosecutor and another member of the clemency board. Felons deserve their voting rights only “after they have demonstrated a commitment to living a crime-free life,” she said. The new civil rights restoration process will be “fair and restore a proper respect for the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

Florida thus joins Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa in requiring an application for restoration of civil rights upon completion of criminal sanctions. Following the change, Florida’s disenfranchisement rule is now the “most restrictive” in the country, according to Erika Wood, director of the Right to Vote project at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Simon decried not only the rule but the process involved in the change. “Just as troubling as what they did is how they did it – in secret, without advice or debate, and with unseemly haste,” he said. The clemency board reportedly did not announce the rule change until just before its meeting, then limited discussion on the issue.

Also unseemly is that in ending the automatic restoration of civil rights for non-violent ex-offenders, Florida’s executive clemency board has removed a rehabilitative incentive that resulted in lower recidivism rates.

According to a study released by the Florida Parole Commission in July 2011, former offenders who had their civil rights restored were less likely to return to prison. The Commission examined 31,000 released prisoners from 2009 to 2010, and found around 11 percent of those who regained their civil rights were re-incarcerated. In contrast, the recidivism rate for ex-offenders who did not have their civil rights restored was about 33 percent.

“This report shows clemency is working very well, as 89 percent of convicted felons granted a second chance have not re-offended,” observed Reggie Garcia, a Florida attorney who assists ex-felons seeking restoration of their rights.

Someone should inform Governor Scott, Attorney General Bondi and the other members of the clemency board who decided to make it harder for former offenders to regain their civil rights.

Sources: Washington Post, www.thedefendersonline.com, www.thedailybeast.com

 

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