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Crist's mixed message: Restore ex-felons' rights quickly, but without more funding

TALLAHASSEE — Under fire from state auditors, the Florida Parole Commission wants more money to reduce an extensive backlog of former felons seeking to regain their civil rights.

There's just one problem: Gov. Charlie Crist wants every state agency under his command to ask for less money next year.

"We have to live within our means just like Florida families do," Crist says. "We have lived within our means. We have reined in the size of government. We'll continue to do that. I'm very pleased by it."

Such rhetoric may sound reassuring to Floridians worried about their own bottom lines during a grinding recession. But Crist's unwillingness to consider any increase in funding for the Parole Commission underscores a basic contradiction in his policies.

The governor, who is campaigning for the U.S Senate as a fiscally conservative budget-cutter, has championed streamlining the restoration of civil rights for ex-felons, but won't provide more money for the agency to do it.

In a legislative budget request filed with Crist's office two weeks ago, the Parole Commission asked for 20 more parole examiners at an increase of $1.2-million.

But Crist's budget director, Jerry McDaniel, issued a directive to all agencies that cited the continued grave condition of Florida's economy.

"The state of Florida faces a possible $2.6-billion general revenue funding gap for fiscal year 2010-2011," McDaniel wrote in the Oct. 12 memorandum. "I have discussed the state's financial forecast with the governor. … We anticipate no requested increases in agencies' budgets as well as a full slate of reduction options."

The agency has endured a 20 percent budget reduction in recent years, the largest share of any criminal justice agency under Crist's control. This year, the Parole Commission has 128 full-time employees and a budget of about $8-million. The agency narrowly avoided a $300,000 budget cut during a January special session because Crist vetoed the reduced appropriation.

A review of the Parole Commission's work by the state auditor general last month found errors and sloppiness in a number of cases, and auditors blamed some mistakes on a lack of personnel.

"Obviously, the greater the resources, the greater the ability for us to process cases in a more timely manner," said Parole Commission Chairman Frederick Dunphy.

At Crist's urging, the Cabinet overhauled the rules in clemency cases in April 2007, making about 80 percent of ex-felons potentially eligible to quickly regain their civil rights without hearings, enabling them to vote, run for public office, serve on a jury and hold one of dozens of state-issued professional licenses.

But the Parole Commission, which investigates all civil rights petitions, had 63,000 cases pending on June 30 and anticipates 60,000 new cases every year because of inmate releases. State auditors estimated that it would take 71 caseworkers a full year to eliminate the backlog of pending cases.

The result is more frustration for tens of thousands of ex-felons seeking to rejoin society, such as Humberto Aguilar, 57, of Miami, a lawyer who served time for money laundering in the 1990s. He was sentenced in 1997, released from federal supervision in 2003 and applied for restoration of his civil rights in 2006.

"Several hundred clemency investigations remain ahead of your clemency request," read the letter to Aguilar dated March 12 of this year and signed by Parole Examiner Tawanna Hays. "There is no information available that I would be able to provide to you regarding how long the process may take. Your patience is greatly appreciated."

The letters were obtained by the Times/Herald from Aguilar. The state declined to release them, citing confidentiality laws in the clemency process.

Most other agencies have strictly hewed to Crist's call for holding the line or cutting spending. For example, Secretary of State Kurt Browning submitted a legislative budget request that would reduce his funding by about $150,000 next year.

The requests form the foundation of the budget recommendations Crist will submit to the state Legislature in February, and Browning said he understood the drill. He said he wanted to ask for more money for historical and cultural grants, which he called "economic engines" in communities, but McDaniel's memo changed that.

"It's that bottom line number in the lower right," Browning said. "They want to make sure that the number isn't more than the current year's appropriation."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Read the directive Gov. Charlie Crist's budget director sent to state agency heads, asking them not to seek more money next year.

Regaining your rights

Persons seeking to have their civil rights restored can apply online at www.FLrestoremyrights.com or can call the state's toll-free number: 1-800-435-8286.

Crist's mixed message: Restore ex-felons' rights quickly, but without more funding 10/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 26, 2009 7:26am]
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