by Kevin Bliss
The Florida Cabinet and Governor Ron DeSantis collaborated to restructure the state’s clemency rules, streamlining the application process and automating certain aspects in an effort to expedite civil rights restoration for ex-offenders.
The Cabinet, comprised of Governor DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, met March 10, 2021 and amended the rules for requesting clemency to allow ex-felons to file immediately upon release, no longer is there a five-year or seven-year waiting period.
Florida had a system that was able to keep up with the automatic restoration of over 155,000 individuals during Charlie Crist’s four years as governor. Nonetheless, the rules changed in Rick Scott’s eight-year tenure so that only 3,000 of the 30,000 felons who applied had their rights restored during that period.
The board also ruled that civil rights restoration was thereafter automatic if the applicant had paid all of his or her court-ordered fines, fees, and restitution related to the case. The initial request filing was still required to start the process, but thereafter restoration was automatic, no hearings necessary.
Those who did have pending fines or fees could still apply for civil rights restoration. A clemency hearing would be scheduled at which the board had the authority to waive court costs and fines. DeSantis said the board was making these changes to expedite the civil rights restoration process and freed up some of the 24,000 backlogged cases currently pending. However, he also spoke of the board’s authority over whom it wished when it came to Amendment 4 voting rights.
“Those who have had their voting rights restored under Amendment 4, it makes sense to also restore the other civil rights,” stated DeSantis. “Now, felons who have not completed all terms of the sentence or who have not received a judicial modification or conversion of sentence sufficient to satisfy Amendment 4 may not receive the automatic restoration of civil rights without a hearing. They may continue to apply for a restoration of civil rights with a hearing, under the current clemency process.”
Amendment 4 was passed in 2018 allowing ex-felons the right to vote if they had completed their sentence. In 2019 the Florida State Legislature passed a law (signed by DeSantis) specifying court costs, fines, fees, and restitution as a legal assessment and part of a felon’s sentence.
Civil rights activists challenged this law as resulting in nothing more than a poll tax, but a recent Atlanta-based appeals court upheld this ruling as constitutional. See Jones v. Governor of Florida, 975 F.3d 1016 (11th Cir. 2020). It was many of these same activists who supported Amendment 4, which by its own terms disenfranchised people convicted of sex offenses, murder and who were on parole, probation or had not paid their fines and fees. HRDC opposed Amendment 4 as perpetuating bigotry and discrimination against criminal justice impacted populations.
Fried, who is set to run against DeSantis as Governor next year, stated that this measure did not go far enough. She said the changes approved “unfortunately, meets only the bare bones of Amendment 4. What about the vast majority who can’t afford the fines, fees, court costs and money that is owed to the government?”
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Related legal case
Jones v. Governor of Florida
|975 F.3d 1016 (11th Cir. 2020)
|Court of Appeals
|Appeals Court Edition