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Tampa civil rights advocates criticize Florida policy on restoring voting rights to non-violent offenders

Pictured with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, from left to right, are Hillsborough County NAACP branch president Carolyn Hepburn Collins, ACLU of Florida regional director Joyce Hamilton Henry, longtime Tampa civil rights advocate Clarence Fort, and Niki Johnson of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. The group spoke Tuesday in front of downtown Tampa's former Kress department store, which is next to the old Woolworth's lunch counter. In 1960, Fort, then 21 and the leader of the NAACP youth council, the Rev. A. Leon Lowry and 50 black high school students asked to be served at the Woolworth's lunch counter.

Office of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor

Pictured with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, from left to right, are Hillsborough County NAACP branch president Carolyn Hepburn Collins, ACLU of Florida regional director Joyce Hamilton Henry, longtime Tampa civil rights advocate Clarence Fort, and Niki Johnson of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. The group spoke Tuesday in front of downtown Tampa's former Kress department store, which is next to the old Woolworth's lunch counter. In 1960, Fort, then 21 and the leader of the NAACP youth council, the Rev. A. Leon Lowry and 50 black high school students asked to be served at the Woolworth's lunch counter.

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U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and civil rights leaders Tuesday again called for Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to end policies that critics say effectively keep non-violent felony offenders from regaining the right to vote.

"You are subjecting these Floridians to such a complicated, time-consuming and bureaucratic process for rights restoration that the policy, in effect, bars the restoration of civil rights and thereby harkens back to the Jim Crow era of discrimination," Castor said in a letter to Scott, who is scheduled to meet Wednesday with the Cabinet as the state's clemency board.

In 2007, then Gov. Charlie Crist made it possible for felons who were convicted of less-serious crimes to regain their rights without having to go through a hearing. The process remained more demanding for those convicted of murder and other serious offenses, with a hearing and investigation still required.

Crist's changes enabled 154,178 restorations, though a backlog of 100,000 remained when he left office.

In 2011, the policy changed after Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi argued that the restoration process was too easy. Instead, Scott and the Cabinet decided to require a minimum five-year waiting period before ex-felons could regain the right to vote, sit on a jury or hold public office. Since then, fewer than 400 restorations have been approved, Castor said.

The change has hit African-American Floridians disproportionately, Castor said in her letter to Scott. In 2010, about 520,500 black state residents, or about 23 percent of the state's black voting age population, could not vote because of a felony conviction. It is an issue that has gotten national attention. Last month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on states such as Florida to repeal policies that permanently disenfranchise felons.

In response to Castor's appeal, Scott's press secretary said, “Florida’s Constitution prescribes that individuals who commit felonies forfeit their right to vote."

"This is a right that states exercise under the U.S. Constitution and their own respective constitutions," press secretary Jackie Schutz added in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "For those who are truly remorseful for how they have wrecked families and want to earn back their right to vote, Florida’s Constitution also provides a process to have their rights restored.”

[Last modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 2:52pm]

    

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