TALLAHASSEE — With uncommon speed that infuriated opponents, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet imposed strict new barriers Wednesday on felons who want to regain the right to vote, including a five-year waiting period to apply for clemency.
The action wipes out a streamlined policy adopted in 2007 by former Gov. Charlie Crist and a different Cabinet in an effort to help ex-offenders become productive citizens and reduce the chance they would commit new crimes.
Adding to the objections of opponents was the fact that copies of the rule change were not made available to the public until after the meeting began and public testimony was then limited to two minutes per person, for a total of 30 minutes. The four statewide elected officials received the new policy Tuesday night.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam asked for a slower, more detailed explanation of the changes, saying he "didn't have much time" to absorb them because he got the proposal so late.
"Why the rush to go back to where we started from?" asked Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
Howard Simon of the ACLU of Florida said the speed suggested a drive to deny voting rights to as many people as possible before the 2012 presidential election.
"The unseemly haste and lack of transparency suggests clearly that this was politics disguised as public policy," Simon said.
Asked why it happened so fast, Scott said: "I believe that part of my job is to, when I get comfortable with a decision, to go forward and announce the decision and start down a path."
The discarded policy allowed tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders to regain their civil rights without a time-consuming application and hearing process. The new policy requires felons to wait at least five years after completing their sentences before applying for civil rights and during that wait they can't have been arrested. Certain classes of violent felons will have to wait seven years to apply.
"The restoration of civil rights can be a significant part of the rehabilitation of criminal offenders and can assist them to re-enter into society," Scott said. "It is important that this form of clemency be granted in a deliberate, thoughtful manner that prioritizes public safety and creates incentives to avoid criminal activity."
Prosecutors, police chiefs and sheriffs all showed up to testify in support of the decision.
"Convicted felons should be required to demonstrate their desire to have their rights restored," said Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, speaking for the Florida Sheriffs Association. "The application process ensures accountability."
State Attorney Brad King of Ocala said: "Convicted felons should show a willingness to abide by the law before they have their privileges of citizenship returned."
Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho said the restrictive civil rights process — "a stain on Florida," he called it — has its origins in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, in an effort to prevent freed slaves from voting. The new policy will ensure "a permanent underclass of underemployed individuals," Sancho said.
Civil rights advocates said Florida joins two other states, Kentucky and Virginia, that also require waiting periods and hearings before felons can regain their civil rights, which also include being able to serve on a jury, run for office and hold dozens of professional licenses.
Joining Scott in the 4-0 vote were Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi, a former Hillsborough prosecutor who proposed the change last month.
"I believe if you are convicted of a felony, there should be an appropriate waiting time before you have your rights restored, and I firmly believe that someone should have to ask," Bondi said.
Even the streamlined civil rights process required felons to wait years for a decision because the Florida Parole Commission, the agency that handles clemency cases, is hobbled by a lack of personnel and has a backlog of more than 100,000 cases.
Critics said the change would worsen Florida's high rate of recidivism because ex-offenders will now face new barriers in trying to become productive citizens. Scott supports revamping prison policies to reduce the state's notoriously high rate of recidivism.
"Once a person has paid their debt, they should be fully and quickly integrated back into the community," said Danielle Prendergast, director of public policy of the ACLU of Florida.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.