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Maxwell: Putting a face on Florida’s refusal to let felons vote

By Bill Maxwell | Opinion columnist
Published: February 2, 2018 Updated: February 6, 2018 at 12:57 PM

Ancient Greeks and Romans invented it, and they did not justify it with platitudes and wrongheaded thinking. They called it precisely what it was: "civil death." The criminal was rendered the walking dead and could not participate in most areas of public life.

European nations adopted civil death, and the English brought it to the American colonies. In the American South, where African slaves were considered non-human, civil death was taken for granted.

Under civil death, felons lost most rights, including the right to own property, the right to enter into contracts, the right to hold certain jobs and, of course, the right to vote. It was disenfranchisement.

In many locations, felons had no way to regain citizenship even after they had satisfied the terms of their punishment. The belief was that such immoral creatures should not be permitted to help fashion laws and mores.

Centuries later, such backward thinking is alive and well in Florida, an international vacation stop and a major player in presidential elections. Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, has the nation’s highest number of disenfranchised ex-felons at 1.5 million. They cannot vote until they receive clemency from the anti-felon governor and a conservative Cabinet.

As a black man who grew up in the South and worked as a civil rights organizer, I have witnessed up close the dehumanization of ex-felons. An unintended consequence of disenfranchising ex-felons is that it not only hurts one pariah group, such as African-Americans. It hurts many members of other groups.

One of the most unfortunate cases I have encountered is that of Rich Alvarez, director of Workforce Development for the Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-entry Coalition. Alvarez, 48, is not a spokesperson for PERC, and his observations and comments do not represent those of PERC officials.

His saga began in Ohio, where for 15 years he served as a police officer, a corrections officer and an emergency medical technician. He received disability retirement after being injured in the line of duty.

His legal troubles began when he and another former police officer began investing in housing properties prior to the 2008 economic crash. He and the other officer, ignorant of the industry’s standards, were lured into bogus mortgage deals by a businessman they trusted. They were cheated out of a lot of money, and were indicted on 13 counts of wire fraud, a federal offense. Legal fees drained Alvarez’s savings.

Alvarez’s lawyer said he faced 20 years in prison if convicted. The other option was to cooperate with federal authorities by pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud. So he pleaded guilty and received six months of house arrest, four years of probation and was ordered to pay restitution of more than $100,000. He completed house arrest, served probation and is paying restitution.

Alvarez’s ordeal motivated him to help other ex-felons adjust to their new lives in the so-called "free world."

Here is the tragic irony of Alvarez’s plight. Ohio never revoked his right to vote, and he voted in that state. Ohio does not continue to punish felons who have completed their sentences. When he moved to Florida two years ago, he assumed that he could vote, unaware that the state does not permit federal ex-felons to vote even if their crimes were committed elsewhere. After doing research, he learned that he was barred from voting here.

"I had voted in every election since Bush and Dukakis, until now," Alvarez said. "I feel it is my civic duty and allows me to participate in our democracy. I thought the point of our justice system was to rehabilitate the offender and have him or her become a productive, tax-paying citizen again. If you disenfranchise someone from the system, how are they really a citizen?

"I was taught that if you make a mistake, you take your punishment, learn from it and move on. You’ve paid your debt. In this state, if you make a mistake and serve your debt to society, you are not able to move on. This is coming from a white, moderately conservative Republican and an ex-police officer. I’ve had the unique opportunity to see the criminal justice system from every angle, and my perspective is unlike most."

Floridians for a Fair Democracy has succeeded in putting a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would automatically restore the right to vote to 1.2 million felons such as Alvarez who have not been convicted of murder or sex crimes.

He said he is hopeful the amendment will pass. But because this is Florida, he is keeping his fingers crossed.