The Florida Constitution mandates that every felony conviction carries with it the loss of the right to vote and to hold public office, until these rights are restored by the Clemency Board, which is composed of the governor and Cabinet. Upon my election as attorney general, I inherited clemency rules that allowed the vast majority of felons to have their civil rights restored upon the completion of their criminal sentence, without the need to apply and without any mandatory waiting period.
Last week, supported by the Florida Police Chiefs Association, the Florida Sheriffs Association, and the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Clemency Board unanimously adopted new rules on the restoration of felons' civil rights. The most significant changes reinstated a requirement that those seeking restoration submit an application and imposed a minimum five-year waiting period. These changes eliminated the "automatic," or application-free, restoration of felons' civil rights, which our predecessors had begun allowing for certain offenders in 2007.
My goal in approving the new rules was to restore respect for the rights of law-abiding citizens and to reinforce the fact that every felony is a serious breach of the bonds that unite our society. Rather than obligate the government to initiate the restoration process, it is reasonable to require felons to ask to have their rights restored. Also, felons should demonstrate rehabilitation by living crime-free during a waiting period after the completion of their sentences. Statistics show that, within three years of their release, 33 percent of incarcerated felons will return to prison. Before felons are allowed to again participate in making the law, they should show a willingness to obey the law. As Jerry Hill — a 31-year prosecutor and state attorney in Florida's 10th Circuit — observed, felons earned the designation of convicted felon by breaking the law, so they should also earn the restoration of civil rights by abiding by the law and applying.
Nonetheless, having served as a prosecutor for nearly 20 years, I appreciate the need to help released inmates reintegrate into their communities and find gainful employment. That is why, in conjunction with amending the clemency rules, I support changing Florida law to remove any link between civil rights restoration and the granting of occupational licenses. Both public safety and fairness are best served when the appropriate regulator — not the Clemency Board — thoroughly evaluates the fitness of each licensing applicant, based on the particular circumstances of each case. Licensing should not be contingent upon the restoration of civil rights.
While I welcome principled debate, some arguments raised regarding the rule changes are off-base and warrant a response. One such claim is that civil rights restoration should be automatic because, upon completion of a criminal sentence, the felon has "paid his debt to society." This ignores the Constitution's imposition of the loss of civil rights as a consequence separate from any criminal sentence. Instead of seeking a shortcut through the clemency rules, proponents of automatic restoration should persuade their fellow citizens to amend the state Constitution. The "paid their debt" argument also wrongly suggests that completion of a criminal sentence signals rehabilitation.
For those who may suggest that these rule changes have anything to do with race, these assertions are completely unfounded. Justice has nothing to do with race. In a recent case, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals examined the historical record and soundly rejected the argument that Florida's prohibition on felon voting was originally motivated by racial discrimination.
Finally, some try to undermine the new clemency rules by wrongly claiming that the Clemency Board adopted them without sufficient notice. Consistent with a position I'd taken during my campaign, two weeks before the Clemency Board's vote I announced at an open, televised meeting that I supported adopting an application requirement and a mandatory, multiyear waiting period in the clemency rules. The media reported extensively on my proposal. The next week, I met with representatives of the ACLU and the NAACP and participated in a lengthy and respectful discussion about clemency and the challenges facing felons upon their re-entry into society. When the Clemency Board ultimately voted on the new rules, there were no surprises.
As attorney general, my foremost duty is to uphold the rule of law. That is exactly the goal the new clemency rules seek to accomplish.
Pam Bondi is Florida's attorney general.