Rights restoration still needs fixing

When they meet today as the Clemency Board, Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson will likely revisit concerns surrounding a recent audit of the Parole Commission's civil rights restoration process.

Sink will likely renew her call to revoke the civil rights of 13 individuals referenced in the audit whose rights to vote, eligibility to serve on a jury and hold public office were restored in error.

Regardless of what the board decides, the glaring reality is that Florida's civil rights restoration process is largely broken and widely misunderstood. The April 2007 rule change that provided for expedited processing of case files involving nonviolent offenses, along with certain kinds of violent offenses, didn't entirely fix the system.

Eligibility for state occupational licenses and other employment requiring state certification is often mischaracterized as if it were a right within the bundle of rights subject to restoration in Florida. This common mischaracterization complicates efforts to achieve the kind of comprehensive civil rights restoration reform that Crist may have envisioned at the outset of his term.

Similarly, misperceptions about the public safety implications relating to ex-felon employment eligibility have been a distraction and a source of continuing controversy. The civil rights restoration process was never intended to serve this larger purpose.

The fact that the Parole Commission's budget was slashed and that processing civil rights restoration case files is not among the commission's statutory responsibilities exacerbates the problem. It is unreasonable to expect the Parole Commission to eliminate the backlog of 60,000 case files or keep up with the several thousand new files it receives every month. So it cannot be expected to revisit several hundred thousand older case files that did not meet the initial review criteria established by the April 2007 rule.

Simply put, the current process is set up to fail.

A year ago, the governor and Cabinet grappled with concerns relating to the licensing of mortgage brokers. Sink maintained that the best course of action would be to ensure that state regulatory agencies and licensing boards outside of the clemency process had meaningful criteria in place for determining ex-offender employment eligibility for any given job, including positions of trust and confidence like mortgage brokers. Crist embraced that approach.

More recently, McCollum sent a letter to state House Speaker Larry Cretul calling for the Legislature to disconnect ex-felon employment eligibility issues from the civil rights restoration process and ensure state agencies receive greater regulatory authority to protect the public.

That would be consistent with recommendations made by Gov. Jeb Bush's Ex-Offender Task Force that were intended to reduce recidivism by removing arbitrary barriers to post-release employment.

While the details need to be worked out, beyond addressing the 13 case files that were referenced in the audit, Sink and McCollum have identified critical elements of a viable near-term strategy to advance what would be in the best interests of all Floridians. They would promote public safety interests and streamline the costly and cumbersome civil rights restoration process.

Mark Schlakman is senior program director at Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

Rights restoration still needs fixing 12/09/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 9, 2009 6:05pm]

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