Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Tampa woman champions restoring felons' civil rights

Joyce Hamilton Henry of Tampa will soon go halfway around the world, and her goal is to shame Florida in the eyes of the human rights community.

Her point is Florida's policy of permanently revoking civil rights of felons is a basic violation of human rights.

She will go to Geneva later this week and make a presentation on the issue to the United Nations Human Rights Council, a periodic forum for discussion of national and international human rights issues. She will ask the advisory U.N. panel to direct the U.S. government to publicly support automatic restoration of civil rights for felons upon their release from prison, and force the U.S. government to investigate how the issue affects minorities.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last month called on states such as Florida to repeal policies that permanently disenfranchise felons.

Hamilton Henry, who has a Ph.D. in social policy from Brandeis, is mid-Florida regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union, a group that for years has tried to change state policy to make it easier for felons to regain their rights so they can more fully integrate into society.

The word "integrate" is used for a reason.

A report by the ACLU and other groups, prepared in advance of the Geneva conference, found that disenfranchisement of felons disproportionately impacts African-Americans and other minority groups.

The report said 23 percent of Florida's black residents are disenfranchised, the highest percentage of any state (Kentucky had 22 percent and Virginia 20 percent).

"Voting is a fundamental right. It's not a privilege," Hamilton Henry said. "Barriers to participation in the democratic process are wrong, and Florida is one of the worst examples of a state that permanently disenfranchises an individual."

"We feel that once an individual has served their time in prison and completes their sentence they should be eligible to get their rights restored, period," she said.

The issue has the potential to be a factor in the forthcoming governor's race.

Soon after Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, he backed a sweeping change in the state's clemency system that requires felons to wait at least five years after release before applying for restoration of their rights to vote, sit on a jury or seek public office.

Scott, backed by Attorney General Pam Bondi and two other Cabinet members, abolished the system put in place by former Gov. Charlie Crist and a different Cabinet that streamlined the system so many felons could regain rights without hearings. (Those changes did not apply to violent criminals or sex offenders.)

Working with Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt, the ACLU has helped develop a policy to inform defendants who are about to plead guilty to a felony that they will lose civil rights they might never get back. A modest step, Hamilton Henry said, but progress.

"It's up to us as citizens to hold our individual states responsible for the disenfranchisement policies that are in place," she said.

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