[UPDATE] ACLU Wants Review of Felons' Voting Rights in Florida

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida; AP
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida; AP

[UPDATE] 4-25 3:10pm -- TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) --

The American Civil Liberties Union is asking the federal government to review a recent decision to end the automatic restoration of voting rights to nonviolent Florida felons once their sentences are up.

The ACLU sent its letter to the U.S. Department of Justice on
Monday. It says that the decision by Gov. Rick Scott and the
Florida Cabinet runs afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act. That
law prohibits racially discriminatory practices in voting.

Scott and the Cabinet voted last month to require at least a
five-year waiting period before ex-convicts can apply to get their
rights back. The ACLU says the decision will disproportionately
affect minorities.

A Justice Department spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., did not
have an immediate comment.

_______________________________________

[UPDATE] 3-10 1:55pm --

The Florida Legislative Black Caucus is "outraged" at new restrictions on civil rights restoration. Release is attached:

Following unanimous adoption of new restrictions on Florida’s restoration of civil rights process by the Clemency Board today, members of Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus expressed outrage.

Viewed as a roll back of the automatic restoration of rights policy, that was implemented during former Gov. Charlie Crist’s administration. The Black Caucus members spoke against the hasty decision of Governor Scott and the Cabinet to adopt more restrictive rules that lengthen the process by which ex-felons get back the right serve on a jury, hold public office, and particularly, the right to vote.

"Why the rush to go back to where we started from?" Senator Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, remarked when commenting on the changes.

Under the newly amended Rules of Executive Clemency, individuals convicted of non-violent felonies will now have to wait five years before becoming eligible to apply for restoration of their rights. Convicted of violent felonies will have to wait seven years before being granted a hearing, to formally request that their civil rights be restored.

“The purpose of the corrections and criminal justice systems in this State is to equip ex-offenders with the tools they need to become productive citizens. How can they do that when they don’t have a citizens’ basic rights?” stated Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, Chairman of the Black Caucus. The change, which is effective immediately, will affect thousands of people with felony convictions in their background.

________________________________

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 9, 2011 --

Convicted nonviolent offenders will no longer automatically get their civil rights restored after serving their sentence under a slate of changes approved Wednesday by the governor and members of the state clemency board.

With little debate, the panel unanimously reversed changes made four years ago that had allowed offenders who had completed their sentence, probation, restitution and other requirements to more easily regain their ability to vote, qualify for certain professional licenses and other rights afforded most other citizens. Those changes were pushed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Before that 2007 change, nearly 98,000 offenders were on a waiting list to have their rights restored, a process that has taken about three years to complete.

The vote came after only about a half hour of testimony from advocates on both sides of the issue and less than an hour after copies of the proposed rule changes were released to members of the panel and the public.

The issue only arose this month, when Attorney General Pam Bondi said she wanted to the board to reverse the 2007 change because she believed Florida had made it too easy for ex-felons to have their civil rights restored. New Gov. Rick Scott also pushed for the change.

“Felons seeking the restoration of rights must show they desire and deserve clemency by applying only after they have shown they are willing to abide by the law,” Scott said introducing the proposal.

Under the new rule, nonviolent offenders whose crimes were less severe would be able to apply to get their rights back five years after completing their sentences and all other requirements, such as restitution. More serious offenders would be required to wait seven years before beginning the application process.

Offenders seeking the right to again own firearms would have to wait eight years before beginning the process. The plan also eliminates the discretion of clemency officials to waive those waiting periods. The proposal also adds additional crimes for which restoration of rights would take longer or unavailable.

The move came over strenuous objections of civil rights groups – and minorities - who pushed for the change four years ago because, they said, they were disproportionately affected by laws that make it hard for former convicts to rejoin society. That, in turn, makes it easier to return to a life of crime, groups like the ACLU and the NAACP argued.

“Once a person has paid their debt, they should be quickly and fully integrated back into the community,” said Danielle Prendergast, public policy for the ACLU of Florida. “All the research supports this notion that fast, seamless and complete reintegration reduces crime.”
Voting rights advocates had pushed for the 2007 change as well – and part of the original discussion was over whether Republicans were intentionally keeping minorities disenfranchised because many of them were presumed to have been likely to become Democratic voters. Republicans at the time vehemently denied that.

The inability to review the proposal before it was voted on also raised concern from many of those who attended Wednesday’s meeting. The proposal wasn’t published ahead of time.

“Keeping those plans and conversations out of the sunshine has essentially locked out the people most impacted, as well as criminal justice experts who could provide input,” said Prendergast.

Board members, however, also had little time to review the changes. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said he received a copy of the proposal shortly before the meeting.

Staff members scurried around minutes before and during the meeting to pass out copies of the proposed changes.

The changes were supported by the Florida Police Chiefs Association, the Florida Sheriffs Association and other speakers representing state attorneys, who said offenders need time to prove themselves after completing their sentencing before they are allowed to completely rejoin society.

“With so much recidivism, it’s only fair they prove they are committed to a life free of crime before their civil rights are restored,” said Police Chiefs’ President Peter Paulding.

“Convicted felons should be required to demonstrate why they should have their rights restored as well as document their commitment not to re-offend,” said Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, echoing the sentiments of other law enforcement representatives who spoke Wednesday.

Representatives from the ACLU, the League of Women Voters and several state lawmakers urged the panel Wednesday to postpone a vote on the proposal until after they had a chance to study it.

“We worked with the former Cabinet and the governor to get to where we are today,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. “The question is why the rush to go back to go where we started from.”

Backers of automatic restoration say many ex-offenders have trouble re-connecting with society because they cannot get professional licenses in some cases because of their criminal past.

Lawmakers separately are taking a stab at that issue, too. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday coincidentally approved SB 146, which prohibits state agencies for denying a professional licenses to most ex-felons who have yet to have their rights restored. The measure still has a way to go before becoming law, though.

Advocates on Wednesday pointed to at least one study that showed that regaining civil rights, though not a primary indicator, is a positive factor in keeping offenders from going back to jail.

Scott told reporters after the meeting that it’s the clemency board’s responsibility to set parameters for inmates’ return to society. After hearing from affected parties and framing the argument, Scott there was no reason to wait.

“Part of my job is when I get comfortable with a decision to go forward and start down the path,” Scott said.

________________________

Rep. Alan Williams Statement Concerning Florida Civil Rights Restoration

Tallahassee , FL - Rep. Alan Williams (D-Tallahassee) released the following statement today concerning Governor Scott and Cabinet approval of new clemency policy changes:

“I am deeply disappointed in the decision by Governor Rick Scott and the Cabinet to approve new clemency policies that require ex-felons to wait five to seven years before they can seek restorations of civil rights in order to vote and hold public office.

“Today, I was joined by several members of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators in opposition to the proposal, and we urged Governor Scott and the Cabinet to keep in place clemency rules that began in 2007 under Governor Charlie Crist.

“Changing the rules will only add barriers to those who have paid their debt to society. I believe the Governor and Cabinet made a rush decision and, in turn, have turned back the clock.

“While I support efforts expressed by Attorney General Bondi to decouple occupational licenses restoration legislatively, I, along with other members of the FCBSL, would have like to work with the Governor and Cabinet to explore other opportunities. Perhaps Florida should begin by measuring what progress has been made during the past four years in recidivism rates and employment gains of ex-felons whose rights have been restored.

“Regardless, today’s rule changes will have an overwhelming impact on those who are currently waiting for rights restoration with or without a hearing in Florida.”

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Tallahassee, FL - Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet have ended the automatic restoration of voting and other civil rights to nonviolent felons once their sentences are up.

Sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency, they voted 4-0 on Wednesday to change the panel's rules and require at least a five-year waiting period before ex-convicts can apply to get their rights back.

Law enforcement officials and state prosecutors favored the change, saying people that have broken the law need more time to prove themselves.

Civil rights advocates called the new rule a step backward, one that would amount to a sort of double punishment.

The change is effective immediately, and affects more than 100,000 felons.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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