FL Gov. Crist: "Chain Gang Charlie" or "Civil Rights Charlie?"

By Mike Vasilinda
April 5, 2007 11:42 p.m.

It will now be easier for them to have their voting rights and civil rights restored. The state clemency board voted today to automatically restore the rights of most felons once they complete their sentences.

It will still require murderers and other violent criminals to undergo a board review, but for most felons, it will allow for quicker integration back into society and the job market.

Attorney General Bill McCollum voted against the plan saying it's weak on crime.

"We're going to have half the prisoners that are released in this state that we know, almost half of them, out there committing more crimes, and at the same time, making laws, being able to vote," said Attorney General Bill McCollum.

"This is smart on crime," the governor said. "And that's coming from a guy they nicknamed "Chain Gang Charlie" who said we have to have anti-murder bill passed, who sponsored the stop turning out prisoners act this is just, fair and right thing to do."

The Department of Corrections will now begin contacting as many as one million people affected by Thursday's decision. Many believe it took a conservative with "tough on crime" credentials like Charlie Crist to make that change.

When felons were serving as little as a third of their sentence in the early 90's, then-state-senator, now Gov. Charlie Crist, pushed a requirement that at least 85 percent of a sentence must be served.

He also took away TV's and cable TV. Then he picked up the nickname "Chain Gang Charlie" for forcing through legislation to require prisoners to work when possible instead of doing nothing all day. He lost a provision to have them all chained together.
Now after winning automatic restoration for those who have done their time and paid their dues, State Senator Frederica Wilson says "Chain Gang Charlie," might appropriately be called "Civil Rights Charlie."

Sen. Frederica Wilson, (D) Miami, said, "I think it’s a maturity that has taken place in a man who has a heart," the Democrat from Miami said Thursday.

The governor, when asked, says he's still the same tough guy with a heart for the innocent.

"Being for justice always," the governor said. "That is the consistent theme. That you fight for what is fundamentally fair."

Even the cops’ union leaders dismiss the idea the governor has gone soft on crime and they are behind "Civil Rights Charlie."

"People need to understand. We’re looking at it from a different perspective in law enforcement," said John Rivera, President of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. “If they can get meaningful jobs and can be productive, that’s less work that we have to do.”

Insiders believe if a Democrat had been elected last fall this change would not have been possible. Instead, they say, it took a Republican with chain gang credentials.