TALLAHASSEE — Attorney General Pam Bondi says it is too easy for felons to regain their civil rights in Florida and wants new restrictions including a waiting period of up to five years before they can seek clemency.
"I don't believe that any felon should have an automatic restoration of rights," said Bondi, a former Tampa prosecutor elected in November. "I believe you should have to ask, and there should be an appropriate waiting period."
Bondi's proposal, set to be formally discussed at a March 9 Cabinet meeting, would reverse a major change that took place in April 2007 at the urging of former Gov. Charlie Crist, who said the civil rights restoration process in Florida was too cumbersome and cruel to many ex-offenders.
Crist's changes streamlined the restoration process to allow tens of thousands of felons to regain their right to vote, sit on a jury and obtain various state licenses without having to undergo a lengthy review and hearing process. Nonviolent criminals are eligible to get their rights restored without hearings if they have completed their sentences and pay restitution if required. Violent criminals, sex offenders and others are still required to wait years before their petitions were considered.
Bondi drew support from the rest of the all-Republican Board of Clemency: Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
"I believe that we need to make sure that, when we're talking about clemency, that we review all the cases and so it shouldn't be automatic," Scott said.
Atwater said he supports Bondi's efforts to ensure "that those being granted clemency are most deserving."
Putnam's spokesman said he is "generally supportive of reviewing changes to the clemency rules."
But civil rights groups have been trying without success since 2007 to streamline the process even more.
"Florida needs an automatic restoration process," said Joyce Hamilton Henry of the ACLU. "We also need the Board of Executive Clemency to immediately tell Floridians how they will deal with the growing number of people who just want to move ahead with their lives."
The debate over civil rights restoration has racial and partisan connotations. A disproportionate number of felons are African-American, and blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
"It's a major step backward," said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach. "We should be trying to acclimate African-Americans back into society so we don't have a recidivism rate that's as high as it is."
More than a dozen Democratic legislators joined representatives of the ACLU and NAACP on Thursday in urging the state to go in a drastically different direction by making it easier for felons to regain their rights so they can get jobs.
"The application process is a broken process," said Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs. "There's about 100,000 applicants waiting to get approved. It's broken, it's not working and it needs to be changed. An automatic seamless process would save time and money and get people back to work."
The Florida Parole Commission, which investigates applications for clemency, has a still-growing backlog of cases that reached 100,654 on Feb. 1, according to testimony the agency provided to the Legislature this week.
Bondi outlined her proposal abruptly at the end of the first meeting of a revamped Board of Clemency, at which officials showed a general reluctance to grant pardons or civil rights restorations, even in cases in which the Parole Commission staff recommended they be granted.
In more than a dozen cases, Scott said: "I deny the application." He said later: "The decisions today were very difficult to make."
For nearly three hours Thursday, the board considered 53 cases, denying most petitions and all four board members asking many specific questions.
The clemency bid of Brevard County's James Dillon Roland II was dashed by a string of speeding tickets in recent years.
"I'm not sure NASCAR would accept your application. This is an incredible record you've got," Atwater told the former drug addict, whose crimes took place in the 1980s and who later got a degree in civil engineering.
One of the few lucky ones was Paolo Muller, a 53-year-old restaurant waiter in West Palm Beach. A recovering alcoholic, he pleaded guilty to cocaine possession charges 15 years ago and was sentenced to probation.
Like most others who testified Thursday, he expressed remorse for his misdeeds. As a native of Italy, he said, he needs a full pardon to become a U.S. citizen.
"It changes my life that I can proceed with a petition for citizenship," Muller said after Scott and the board members unanimously approved his request. "My goal is to live my life to the fullest."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.