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Break the link between rights, job licensing

Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet adopted new clemency rules earlier this month that rank Florida with Kentucky and Virginia among the most restrictive states in the nation regarding the restoration of civil rights for ex-felons.

Their action runs counter to evolving principles of "smart justice" and cuts against an emerging national consensus on helping ex-felons re-enter society to reduce recidivism. It also is at odds with tea party and libertarian principles of reducing governmental interference on people's lives.

Yet there may be a silver lining.

As a candidate, Attorney General Pam Bondi released this statement in October: "The blanket restoration of felons' rights is not only irresponsible, but it is dangerous and I am absolutely opposed to it. … As attorney general, I will vigorously oppose any effort to extend the automatic restoration of civil rights to felons. The restoration or rights should be done on a case by case basis."

Now she has fulfilled that campaign promise.

But Bondi also supports legislation to end basing an ex-felon's eligibility for some state professional licenses and other jobs on whether he or she has regained civil rights. That is consistent with a recommendation by Gov. Jeb Bush's Ex-Offender Task Force four years ago. The intent is to remove arbitrary barriers that prevent ex-felons from getting jobs that are crucial to avoiding a return to crime.

After breaking the link between employment restrictions and civil rights restoration, ex-felons would be more effectively screened for public safety concerns by regulatory agencies and licensing boards. Then no tangible public safety issue would be tied to restoring ex-felons' civil rights to vote, serve on a jury or hold public office regardless of the nature of their criminal offense. The process was never intended to serve this larger purpose. That proposed change should appeal to both victims' advocates and law enforcement officials.

The Senate passed this reform last year but it failed to gain traction in the House. This year, a similar bill is moving in the Senate, and Bondi's aides have met with House leadership to push for the changes. Like former Attorney General Bill McCollum, Bondi deserves credit for backing this reform.

Somewhat surprisingly, Bondi's push to make ex-felons wait five to seven years before applying for civil rights restoration failed to spark meaningful debate among Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, while sitting as Florida's Board of Executive Clemency.

The changes rolled back efforts by Gov. Charlie Crist to streamline civil rights restoration for largely nonviolent ex-felons with support from Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson. But they also negated steps Bush took a decade ago to eliminate the need for ex-felons to apply for civil rights restoration.

Bush directed the Department of Corrections to pass names of ex-felons to the Parole Commission electronically, the investigative arm of the Clemency Board, upon completion of sentence. He wanted to promote efficiency and reduce bureaucracy.

Even so, the underfunded Parole Commission faced a backlog of more than 100,000 civil rights restoration case files. With the new waiting periods, the governor and Cabinet effectively eliminated most of the backlog and deferred processing many of these case files to the next administration.

Combined with a large number of older cases that did not meet Crist's guidelines for processing and roughly 4,000 ex-felons who complete their sentences every month, there may be hundreds of thousands of ex-felons who have completed their sentences and remain in democratic limbo. Regardless of motivation, the impact of the Clemency Board's decision will fall disproportionately on minorities who will be unable to exercise their basic rights of citizenship.

The restoration of civil rights does not always turn on partisanship or ideology. Conservatives such as the late Jack Kemp, the former member of Congress and member of President George H.W. Bush's Cabinet, thought Crist's reforms did not go far enough. In a 2007 column in the Washington Times, Kemp wrote, "Crist's desire to change that state's Civil War-era disenfranchisement policies is admirable and long in coming, but the proposed rules still fall short of a truly fair, effective and automatic plan to restore the right to vote."

The way forward is for the Legislature to embrace Bondi's proposal to break the link between civil rights restoration and public safety by ending the state's practice of basing ex-felons' eligibility for state professional licenses and other jobs on whether they have regained their civil rights. This would provide the governor and Cabinet with cause to take another look at the clemency rules.

Mark Schlakman is a lawyer and serves as senior program director at the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. He was special counsel to Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Break the link between rights, job licensing 03/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 21, 2011 5:27pm]
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