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A better idea on pardons

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet will be wasting their time and our tax dollars when they consider a pardon for the dead Doors frontman Jim Morrison. Sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency on Dec. 9, this lame-duck gang — Crist, CFO Alex Sink, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson — are all departing elected office in January and could instead leave a real legacy when they meet for the last time. They could restore the civil rights of an estimated 1 million former Florida inmates.

That would truly be a meaningful legacy affecting living, breathing Floridians — not some rock icon long buried in a Paris cemetery. The Cabinet could be rightfully proud. After all, Florida is only one of three states (all in the Deep South) that permanently disenfranchises former inmates. A Floridian has to appeal for restoration of civil rights and it's neither simple nor automatic. It is, however, bureaucratic, time-consuming, and costs the state millions to staff and administer. And the genesis for this atrocious distinction? A provision still in Florida's Constitution carried forward from 1867, enacted along with Jim Crow laws to keep newly enfranchised blacks from voting after the Civil War. Sadly, it remains. But one vote by the board could change this.

Such executive clemency action by the governor would not be without precedent. In November 1975, Gov. Reubin Askew did just that, finding it unjust that Florida did not automatically restore the civil rights of felons who had served their debts to society. And it did not require new legislation, repealing or amending Florida's Constitution, or the expenditure of any tax dollars.

He simply convinced the Cabinet — sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency — to amend the rules of executive clemency to make the restoration of one's civil rights automatic. Unfortunately, subsequent governors and Cabinet members have made restoration of one's civil rights harder, not easier, and certainly not automatic as Askew did.

Restoring the civil rights of this estimated 1 million Floridians would allow them to vote and participate in civic life. But it would also affect their ability to get better-paying jobs, as many positions and licenses in Florida require the restoration of one's civil rights. That, in turn, also affects former inmates' ability to support their families, pay taxes, and maybe not become a recidivist and go back to prison soon after being released.

So, while some of the fans of Morrison may still want him to be pardoned posthumously — and that's fine by me — Charlie Crist, Alex Sink, Bill McCollum and Charles Bronson ought to also step up next month and amend the rules of executive clemency to make restoration of civil rights automatic after completion of a sentence.

Askew is often remembered as one of the best governors Florida ever had. And with good reason. He did what was right. In a more important way than Jim Morrison, he too broke on through to the other side.

Attorney Randall C. Berg Jr. is executive director of Florida Justice Institute Inc., a public interest and civil rights law firm in Miami that represents the under- and unrepresented.

A better idea on pardons 11/21/10 [Last modified: Sunday, November 21, 2010 3:30am]
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