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Florida Reports Indicate Restoration of Civil Rights Reduces Recidivism

by David M. Reutter

Advocates of automatic restoration of civil rights for ex-offenders have long maintained that such a policy helps former prisoners reintegrate into society and therefore reduces recidivism. Two reports by the Florida Parole Commission (FPC), released in 2011 and 2012, lend support to that argument.

Since the end of the Civil War, Florida has banned the restoration of civil rights for ex-felons unless their rights are restored by the state clemency board. Historically, the restoration process has been laborious and prolonged.

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist pushed for full restoration of rights for offenders after they completed their sentences or terms of supervised release. He greatly streamlined the restoration process in 2007, but also had to compromise.

Objections from Crist’s cabinet forced him to exclude certain violent offenders and sex offenders, but the less restrictive process still resulted in over 154,000 ex-felons regaining their rights. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.26].

When Governor Rick Scott took office in January 2011, however, he and Attorney General Pam Bondi moved to rescind the Crist policies. They decided that ex-offenders must wait five years without committing another offense and then apply to have their civil rights restored. [See: PLN, Sept. 2011, p.28].

As a result of this regression to Jim Crow-era laws, 60,000 ex-felons were ineligible for restoration of their rights: They were prohibited from voting, holding public office, sitting on a jury and obtaining certain state licenses. Governor Scott’s new policy also required studies of those whose rights were restored under the Crist administration.

The first report, issued by the FPC on July 1, 2011, found that 30,672 offenders had their civil rights restored in calendar years 2009 and 2010 combined (including restoration of alien status for a small number of non-citizens). Of those, only 3,406 had committed offenses by May 31, 2011 that resulted in a return to prison or community supervision by the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC).

This equates to a 11.1% recidivism rate for ex-felons whose rights were restored under Crist’s policies, which contrasts with a 2010 FDOC report that found 33.1% of all state prisoners released from 2001 to 2008 reoffended within three years.

Scott and his cabinet have argued that the more restrictive restoration of rights process, including the five-year waiting period, is necessary to protect the public. “It’s all window dressing to support an antiquated system of voter suppression,” countered Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.

Attorney General Bondi applauded the FPC study. “I am pleased with the Parole Commission’s report, which clearly demonstrates their hard work to ensure a smooth and expeditious application process for the restoration of civil rights,” she said.

Of course, under Governor Crist, the “application process” was full restoration of rights for most non-violent offenders that, according to the FPC study, led to a reduction in recidivism rates by almost two-thirds.

The FPC’s report on restoration of civil rights for 2010 and 2011 (which included some overlapping data from the 2009-2010 report), issued on July 1, 2012, had similar findings. Only 5,771 ex-felons had their rights restored in calendar years 2010 and 2011 combined – including a mere 52 people in 2011 under Scott’s new policy. During that same period of time 651 reoffended, for a recidivism rate of 11.3%.

Which is a good argument for expanding – not limiting – the restoration of civil rights, if only Governor Scott would pay attention to the recidivism data rather than rely on political rhetoric.

Sources: Herald Tribune; Florida Parole Commission, Clemency Action Reports for FY 2009-2010 and 2010-2011

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