Ernest Hooper: Restoring rights after prison is about redemption, not politics

Florida is one of only three states that strip all individuals with felony convictions of their civil rights, including their fundamental right to vote, even after completion of their sentences. [Times file (2011)]
Florida is one of only three states that strip all individuals with felony convictions of their civil rights, including their fundamental right to vote, even after completion of their sentences. [Times file (2011)]
Published January 16
Updated January 17

Desmond Meade says everywhere he goes in Florida, he hears the stories.

From whites and blacks, conservatives and liberals, blue collar laborers and white collar wage earners. People from all walks have walked up to him with a common request.

Theyíre convicted felons in the state of Florida, and they want their voice back.

"Theyíre being treated as second-class citizens," said Meade, who will speak at the Trinity Democratic Clubís monthly meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday (Jan. 24) in the Fox Hollow Golf Club, 10050 Robert Trent Jones Parkway.

"People who made mistakes when they were teens are still being punished even though they paid their debt to society. Their dignity has not been restored. They arenít able to have their voices heard.

"The most telling characteristic of a democracy is to have your voice heard, but Florida permanently bars them from that."

Meade heads the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which is committed to removing Floridaís civil rights ban on citizens with past felony convictions. This state is one of only three that strips all individuals with past felony convictions of their civil rights, including their fundamental right to vote, even after completion of their sentences.

To get it back, you have to wait five to seven years before you can apply, endure a backlog and then make an appeal to the state clemency board, which rejects more than 90 percent of those who apply.

A graduate of the Florida International University College of Law, Meade knows better than most how the state law unfairly impedes a personís quest for rights restoration because it impedes him. Meade, a recovered drug addict released from prison in 2004, traveled the road of redemption, entering drug rehabilitation after his release, and then a halfway house.

During the process, he made a promise to himself ó and to the State of Florida.

"I dedicated my life to giving back to the community," Meade said. "I wanted to be an asset rather than a liability. Iíve channeled my efforts to give back to community, but to give back to the state of Florida.

"And the state of Florida says Iím not good enough to be an American citizen."

So the coalition is pushing to get an amendment on the 2018 ballot that will restore the rights of former felons after theyíve completed their full sentence. Meade argues that helping them reintegrate into the community will reduce recidivism and make them less likely to commit another crime.

Opponents argue its an effort driven by progressives to tilt elections in the favor of Democrats.

Meade says itís about democracy not Democrats, redemption not Republicans.

"We rebuke that this is about partisan politics," Meade said.

In fact, Meade is quick to point that all are welcome to attend his appearance in Trinity. The crusade to gain the needed 700,000 -plus signatures to put the initiative on the ballot involves persuasive education, not political debate. As of Jan. 17, they were within 20,000 of the target number because theyíve simply explained Floridaís system doesnít help broken people heal.

"Deep in each of our hearts folks want to be forgiven when they make mistakes," Meade said.

Whether youíre talking about Christianity, Judaism or Islam, the major religions of our nation promote forgiveness. Florida should be a place of faith, a state of second chances, a place where people can rebound.

I look back on my life and see it littered with mistakes. They werenít big enough to land me in jail, but in some cases only by the grace of God. I was given a shot at redemption, and Iím willing to give it to others.

Shouldnít we all be willing?

Thatís all Iím saying.

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