TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday that 115,000 people have regained their civil rights in the 14 months since he pushed for changes in Florida's civil rights restoration system.
Those felons regained their rights under a system that allows many non-violent ex-offenders to qualify without a hearing, as long as they have completed probation, have no pending criminal charges and have paid restitution to victims.
"Forgiveness is very, very important," Crist told a gathering of civil rights activists, prison officials and legislators. "Who doesn't deserve a second chance?"
Crist spoke at a two-day event called the Restoration of Rights Summit, sponsored by the state Department of Corrections with a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
More than 300 people from across the state are participating in the event, highlighted by emotional stories of people who overcame drug and alcohol addictions, prison time and despair. The conference also explores the barriers facing ex-offenders, from a lack of housing and job training programs to substance abuse.
The celebrated 115,232 ex-offenders can register to vote, serve on juries, run for office and hold various business licenses. As their numbers swell, they have the potential to be a factor in the 2008 presidential election.
But not all of them are full citizens yet. About 25,000 won't have their rights restored until Crist and three Cabinet members sign documents that will entitle all of those ex-offenders to a legal certificate confirming their new status.
Last week, the St. Petersburg Times requested a list from the Florida Parole Commission of everyone whose rights have been restored since April 5, 2007, the date the new rules took effect.
Acting on a campaign promise, Crist led a move in 2007 to dismantle Florida's Jim Crow-era laws, perpetuated by Democrats for decades, to erect lifelong barriers to ex-offenders seeking to regain their civil rights.
Not everyone shares the celebratory mood of the conference.
Some experts say the restoration machinery is hampered by budget cuts at the Florida Parole Commission and a requirement that applicants for clemency be subjected to a cumbersome background check to determine whether their eligibility to hold a state license would pose a risk.
"The process itself is fatally flawed and needs to be re-engineered," said Mark Schlakman, director of the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University, and a former clemency adviser to Gov. Lawton Chiles.
The Legislature recently cut 20 percent of the Parole Commission's budget, which will force the loss of nine employees who process civil rights applications. The agency insists it is doing all it can to speed the civil rights restoration process.
"We're not opposed to anything that makes the process easier," said Parole Commission spokeswoman Jane Tillman.
Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.