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September 9, 2007 - Miami Herald (FL)

[Florida] Felons Seek Return Of Rights At Miami Summit

By Mary Ellen Klas and Susannah A. Nesmith

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The woman in long braids stood in line, filled out the form, waited in chairs, stood in another line, and finally sat down in the chair that mattered -- the one where a volunteer would help her get that old marijuana charge off her record.

"No, I'm not telling you my name," she told a Miami Herald reporter. "I'm here to clear my name. You call me Tyshae, but that's it. This is the last time Tyshae will be called a criminal."

Tyshae was among about 1,000 people who packed a Little Haiti auditorium for The Restoration of Rights and Redemption Summit on Saturday.

Officials from the Miami-Dade public defender's, state attorney's and elections offices were on hand, as well as volunteers from the local American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Aid, to help people who have committed certain nonviolent crimes get their civil rights restored and their records sealed.

It was one in a series of outreach efforts by these and other organizations being held around the state since April 5, when Gov. Charlie Crist and two other members of the Clemency Board -- Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink -- voted to revise Florida's Jim Crow-era rules and make it easier for most nonviolent felons to have their rights restored.

Once that happens, they are able to vote, serve on a jury, be elected to office and obtain professional licenses. They cannot carry firearms.

Organizers were a little overwhelmed by the turnout in Little Haiti, which was boosted by an inaccurate announcement on a local radio station -- that anyone with a felony arrest could get the file sealed.

Since April, the state has granted restoration certificates to 33,000 Floridians -- nearly three times the number restored under former governors Jeb Bush and Lawton Chiles.

"We need to do a better job frankly," Gov. Crist said Friday. "I'm glad we've got a good start, but we've got a ways to go."

Civil rights activists say the rule change approved by Crist and fellow clemency board members was touted as an automatic restoration of rights process.

`Nothing Automatic'

"But there's nothing automatic about it," said Elton Edwards, head of the rights restoration project for the Florida ACLU.

Of the 38,000 cases eligible for rights restoration at the time the rule was changed, 13,934 have been listed for automatic restoration, said Jane Tillman, a Florida Parole Commission spokeswoman.

"All the others are still there because we've got to get to them," she said.

Since April, the Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have reviewed their records and found 698,000 people with felony convictions who never had their rights restored. They next deleted the names of people who had died, moved out of state, or were reincarcerated, and the list dropped to 300,000, Tillman said.

Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, hopes outreach programs like Saturday's summit help bring out more eligible people. She inserted $50,000 in the state budget to help finance the summits and pay for a promotion campaign.

"This is a civil rights issue that infringes on the lives and livelihoods of so many people in Florida, especially African-American citizens," Wilson said. "We've taken a first step, but there are many more this action won't help."

Reginald Smith of Carol City is one of them. Eight years ago, he was arrested on burglary of a dwelling charges -- "and it was my house," he said. As part of a plea deal, adjudication was withheld, meaning he's not a convicted felon and can still vote. But the arrest stays on his record.

Smith, 31, came to the summit Saturday to get the record sealed so he could get apply for a better truck driving job. "I'm here because I want to get a FedEx or UPS job," he said. "But they won't look at you with an arrest record. I got up early this morning because I need a second chance."

Chief Assistant Public Defender Carlos Martinez wasn't encouraging. "I can tell you, with a withhold on a burglary of a dwelling, you won't qualify."

"Even if it was my own house?" Smith pleaded. The answer was no.

Unexpected Turnout

Volunteers at Saturday's event were able to help only the first 250 people and began taking down phone numbers and promising they'd look into the cases of another 400 people during the next two weeks. Martinez said the volunteers ran out of application forms.

Wilson said she was stunned by the turnout. She vowed to hold another summit next month, perhaps in the Miami Arena. Meanwhile, she said she will continue working to streamline the process further.

How To Get [Florida Voting] Rights Restored (pdf)

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