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January 30, 2005 - The Orlando Sentinel (FL)

Stop Stalling - Justice Due Ex-Felons

By Myriam Marquez, Sentinel Columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

It's as old as Jim Crow and as unfair as the law that bore that name. Florida's 137-year-old clemency system of denying people the right to vote after they've completed their prison sentences and paid their debt to society carries a lot of racial baggage.

The last time Florida voters considered lifting the ban on felons' civil rights was 1968, when Old South pols tried to hold back federal civil-rights reforms any way they could. Poor, black men are disproportionately represented in our penal system, which might explain the 1968 vote.

The Florida of 1968 was a very different place than the diverse Florida of today. Yet Gov. Jeb Bush, who's been a visionary in helping minorities succeed in education, acts like a bully-boy sheriff on the clemency issue.

By making people wait, often for years, to get a clemency hearing before the governor and state Cabinet, Florida contributes to a cycle of hopeless criminality. Without getting one's civil rights restored, former prisoners can't even get a state license to earn a living as a barber.

Recently the governor and Cabinet streamlined the clemency system, after The Miami Herald uncovered gross inadequacies and delays. The governor, himself, pointed out then that there were 4,000 cases waiting a hearing, but that only about 200 get heard in a year's time.

The new changes will, among other things, allow those convicted of nonviolent crimes to apply for clemency without the need of a board hearing -- if they have been clean for five years after getting out of prison. "The new policy reflects the recognition that if you have paid your debt to society and you believe in forgiveness, then there ought to be a more compassionate approach," Attorney General Charlie Crist, who sits on the four-man Clemency Board, said last month.

But why require any wait?

You would think compassionate conservatives in Tallahassee, having succeeded in reducing crime rates with "three strikes you're out" life sentences and laws that require inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentences behind bars, would see the value of tossing out the old clemency system.

Isn't it time to move into the 21st century? Florida's among only seven states in the nation still obstructing ex-felons' civil rights.

At least two prominent Republicans believe Florida should join the 43 states that automatically restore civil rights once felons have done their time. Sen. Stephen Wise, chairman of the criminal-justice committee, and Senate Majority Leader Alex Villalobos, a former prosecutor, would like the Legislature to put the issue before voters if Bush won't budge any other way.

It just seems like such a waste of good will for Bush to not wipe the slate clean -- particularly after last year's botched-up "potential felons" fiasco. It's no wonder so many black voters don't trust the administration.

Bush and the Clemency Board could get rid of any waiting list by simply making the voting-restoration policy "automatic" once a felon leaves prison. That's what former Gov. Reubin Askew did.

Back when sentencing laws were lax and prisons had a revolving door, maybe, maybe, one could argue that those leaving the slammer should have to jump through more hoops to get their civil rights restored. But today sentences are tough, prisoners are doing the time, and the vast majority of them are staying out of trouble.

About three of every four felons out of prison haven't been back within three years of getting out, Florida's own Corrections Department statistics show.

Those on the front lines realize the rehabilitative value of restoring rights automatically. The American Correctional Association, the world's largest group of correctional workers and others associated with prisons, "advocates for the restoration of voting rights upon completion of the offender's sentence, including community supervision."

The ACA's voting-rights resolution points out that barring people from voting has absolutely no rehabilitative value. "Disenfranchisement laws work against the successful re-entry of offenders as responsible, productive citizens into the community," the ACA states.

It's time, governor. It's 137 years past time.

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