WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (PBP) -- Florida leads the nation by a wide margin in the number of felons who have served their sentences but cannot vote.
One of only 11 states in the U.S. that does not automatically return civil rights to former inmates, Florida had not restored the rights of 1.3 million former inmates as of 2010, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that favors alternatives to incarceration. The next closest state was Virginia at 351,943.
A policy introduced by Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi makes most former convicts wait years before they can apply to restore their rights, which include serving on a jury and holding public office.
Critics say the policy disproportionately affects minorities — 60 percent of Florida’s prison population — and cost thousands the ability to vote in 2012.
But Scott and Bondi say felons must demonstrate a crime-free life after prison before regaining their civil rights.
After the 2000 election, the restored felon voting rights became an issue. So former Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist responded to the growing concern by increasing restorations.
Bush restored rights to 72,000 former convicts during his last five years in office, ending in 2006. His successor, Crist, changed state policy, making restoration easier for people convicted of non-violent crimes, and allowed 159,000 to regain their rights between 2007 and 2010.
After Scott reversed that policy, 420 people regained their rights in 2011 and 2012. This year, 94 people have done so.
Now, most former convicts wait five years after they finish their sentences, parole and probation before they can apply. In the case of violent felonies, the wait is seven years.
After that wait, they apply to the Clemency Board, which includes Scott, Bondi and fellow Cabinet members Jeff Atwater, Florida CFO, and Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam. Given a backlog of thousands of former inmates, restoration could take several years after the application is filed.
Critics of the system say putting a person’s right to vote in the hands of partisan politicians is dangerous.
“It is a policy that had its designed effect in that it suppressed the vote of disfavored minorities,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “This policy is one of the last vestiges of Jim Crow in Florida. And it is having the same effect it was meant to have since it was first used in Florida in 1868, to suppress minority voting.”
Scott’s spokesman, John Tupps, responded. “Governor Scott believes that in order to fully re-enter society, felons must demonstrate that they can live a life free of crime, make restitution to victims and show a willingness to ask to have their rights restored,” he said.
Bondi’s press secretary, John Lucas, agreed.
“Attorney General Bondi believes that committing a felony is a serious breach of the bonds that join us together as a society,” Lucas said.
Most inmates in Florida prisons are minorities. African-Americans make up 16.5 percent of Florida’s overall population and 48 percent of the prison population. Hispanics make up 12 percent of the prison population and 23 percent of the general population. That brings the minority population in Florida prisons to 60 percent.
In 2010, African Americans voted against Scott by a margin of 93 percent to 6 percent, according exit polls. Hispanics gave Scott a narrow victory, 50 percent to 48 percent.
A 2010 national study by the Sentencing Project in conjunction with academics reported that of 5.85 million people nationally who couldn’t vote because of felony convictions, 28 percent were from Florida.
Florida also has the largest number of African American former inmates who can’t vote — 520,521 — and the highest percentage compared with the total African American population of the state – 23 percent. The next highest are Kentucky, 22, and Virginia, 20.
The ACLU’s Simon said he believes the Florida 2011 election law changes passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature, which, in part, reduced early voting hours, were designed to reduce voting by minorities. GOP leaders have denied that.
“But the principle tool for voter suppression in Florida is disenfranchisement,” Simon said.
When Crist was governor, he pushed through a change in the executive clemency rules that allowed most former convicts to regain their rights by simply applying, although those guilty of the most serious offenses, such as sexual battery and murder, still had to petition the Clemency Board and go through a longer process.
While Scott has made it a longer road for former convicts to regain their nights, at the same time the Clemency Board and the legislature have made it somewhat easier for former convicts to find work.
Lawmakers passed CS/SB 146 sponsored by state Sen. Chris Smith, D-Oakland Park, which states that “a state agency may not deny an application for a license, permit, certificate, or employment based on the applicant’s lack of civil rights.”
Jobs requiring such state licenses include: bartender, paramedic, athletic trainer, physical trainer, barber, real estate agent, licensed pest exterminator, licensed nurse, CPA, dental hygienist, lottery vendor, and dozens more. The law now says a person can be denied a license only if the crime he or she committed is “directly related” to the license. For example, embezzlers will still have trouble becoming CPAs.
Kevin Gay, president of Operation New Hope in Jacksonville, a nonprofit working with former convicts, said the former policy made no sense.
“What’s the use of teaching a guy in prison how to cut hair and then telling him he can’t work as a barber once he’s out,” Gay said.
Gay said the changes also included reducing the number of crimes that disqualify former convicts from employment in places like ports. Some cities have also changed their procedures and now allow former convicts to work in public jobs that they were previously precluded from.
The ability to work is the most important factor in keeping former convicts out of trouble, Gay said.
“Recidivism is much more a matter of poverty than it is of morality,” he said. “I congratulate the governor for the changes he has supported. We have a prison population of about 103,000 with 33,000 or 34,000 getting out every year. And we need to give them a chance.”
Reggie Garcia, a Tallahassee lawyer who has represented clemency applicants for 19 years, also applauded the greater opportunities for employment.
“Almost every clemency applicant I have represented in 18 years is a business owner or professional who had a prior felony conviction, usually as a young adult, and now they have a roadblock to obtaining state or federal licenses, security clearances, government contracts, better jobs and even volunteer opportunities with non-profits,” Garcia said. “There is now a much more reasonable process for looking at these people than just denying them state licenses. If there is no threat to public safety, there is no reason to keep people from seeking good jobs.”
But Garcia and Gay both wish that Scott and his cabinet would also reconsider the five-year waiting period for restoration of civil rights.
“What happens in this state is people finish their first sentence, which denies them their freedom, and then they have to serve a second sentence once they are out,” Gay said. “As President George W. Bush put it, ‘This is the land of second chances’ and we are denying people those second chances.”