ACLU helping Florida's released felons regain their rights

Joyce Hamilton Henry, center, director of the ACLU Central Florida office, introduces the program’s partners on Tuesday.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Joyce Hamilton Henry, center, director of the ACLU Central Florida office, introduces the program’s partners on Tuesday.

TAMPA — William Dennis will tell you there's no such thing as an "ex-felon" in Florida.

If you've been convicted and punished for a felony, he said, the sentence doesn't stop once you're off probation or parole. The barriers to regain your voting and civil rights go on and on.

"You haven't gone through your sentence if you have to go through more process," he said. "If a person doesn't get their rights automatically restored, then they shouldn't get them automatically taken from them."

Dennis, 57, an east Tampa man who had his own rights restored through an executive order from the governor in 2006, expressed his disgust with the process Tuesday to the American Civil Liberties Union, which came to Tampa to help released felons.

Joined by the offices of the Hills­borough County public defender and supervisor of elections, as well as local lawyers and advocacy groups, the ACLU kicked off a "Hillsborough Votes" program at the C. Blythe Andrews Jr. Library in College Hill.

The program will host workshops, between noon and 3 p.m. every fourth Tuesday at the library, to help released felons navigate the complicated application process to get their rights restored.

The effort comes after Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet toughened the clemency policy in March, requiring many released felons to wait five years before they can seek restoration of rights. The policy allows non-violent offenders to regain their rights without a hearing after being crime-free for five years after being released. For certain classes of violent offenders that require clemency hearings, the waiting period is seven years.

It's not just voting rights affected but the right to run for office, serve on a jury and work in several professions that require licenses. The ACLU said civil rights restoration is linked to as much as 40 percent of job requirements in Florida.

"I don't know how many people come into my office and they feel marginalized," said LaTarsha Brown, a lawyer who works with released felons in Progress Village. "They feel there is no hope."

About 5.3 million nationally and more than 1.2 million in Florida cannot vote because of felony convictions, said Joyce Hamilton Henry, director of the ACLU Central Florida office. More than 950,000 of those in Florida have completed the terms of their incarceration or supervision but have not regained their rights.

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3368.

ACLU helping Florida's released felons regain their rights 04/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 12:18am]

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