As it has for decades, Florida stubbornly clings to an inhumane, inefficient and indefensible system of justice that permanently sentences more than 1.5 million residents to second-class citizenship. This state automatically revokes the right to vote for anyone convicted of a felony, and Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet are making it nearly impossible to persuade them to restore that right. Now the potential to modernize an archaic practice appears better than ever, and Florida cannot waste this opportunity.
Over the next month, it will become clearer whether the most viable path to reform is through a yearslong voter petition drive for a constitutional amendment, the Constitution Revision Commission or the Florida Legislature. The most time-sensitive proposal is a ballot initiative that would ask voters to amend the Florida Constitution so voting rights would be automatically restored for nearly all felons who complete the terms of their sentences, including prison and probation. Those convicted of murder or felony sex crimes would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the governor and Cabinet restored their rights on a case-by-case basis. The group Floridians for a Fair Democracy is getting closer to placing the amendment on the November ballot, but the effort still needs tens of thousands of additional signatures to be certified by the state by a Feb. 1 deadline.
Other proposed amendments will start being considered as early as this week by the Constitution Revision Commission, a powerful panel that meets once every 20 years to propose constitutional amendments that go directly to the ballot. Two proposals would amend the Constitution to automatically restore voting rights upon completion of a sentence, with no caveats except to exclude those convicted of murder or sexual assault. A third proposal by Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, would provide for automatic restoration of voting rights but would expand the number of exclusions to include people convicted of other violent crimes such as robbery and kidnapping.
In addition to those efforts to ask voters to amend the Florida Constitution, the Legislature will consider several proposals addressing the restoration of rights. One of those, SB 430 by Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, and HB 61 by Reps. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana, and Clovis Watson, D-Alachua, provides for automatic restoration of civil rights except for those convicted of certain violent felonies. Another, HB 903 by Reps. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, and Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, would allow felons who have completed their sentences to petition a judge to have their rights restored. A similar Senate bill, SB 1654 by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, adds a seven-year wait after completion of a sentence and would require clear and convincing evidence that the person has been rehabilitated. Given the Legislature’s longtime failure to address this issue, the best route for lasting change may be providing an opportunity for voters to amend the Constitution in November.
There is a convincing public policy case for allowing people who have paid their debt to society to fully re-enter civic life and participate in democracy. Most importantly, felons whose rights are restored are less likely to commit new crimes. Prior to Scott taking office in 2011, Gov. Charlie Crist expedited the restoration process, resulting in more than 155,000 people convicted of nonviolent crimes regaining their civil rights. The reoffending rate of felons who had their rights restored was 11 percent in 2009 and 2010, down two-thirds from the eight years leading up to the change.
Yet Scott and the Cabinet reversed the progressive reforms seven years ago, requiring a five-year wait before offenders can even apply for clemency, an arduous and usually hopeless process that requires years of paperwork and at least one trip to Tallahassee. Applicants must appear before the governor and Cabinet acting as the Clemency Board to plead their cases, which are usually rejected. The backlog of cases awaiting clemency review tops an absurd 22,000.
It will be a few weeks before it’s clear which of these opportunities to address this fundamental unfairness is most viable. But there are broad questions to consider as the public discussion begins. For example, exactly who is eligible for automatic restoration of rights will be a key factor in whether any constitutional amendment wins the 60 percent voter approval required for it to take effect. Rouson’s proposed amendment, for example, carves out more violent offenders than other proposals but still would help some 80 percent of people with felonies.
Waiting periods are another consideration. The state’s five-year wait leaves people in a citizenship purgatory. Any waiting period is questionable. Anything longer than a minimal waiting period defeats the entire purpose of helping felons rejoin society.
Finally, which specific rights would be restored? Felons lose their right to vote, serve on a jury, run for elected office, hold some professional licenses and own a firearm. Retaining some restrictions could be part of a reasonable compromise, but in general civil rights should be restored as broadly as possible.
Florida is out of step with the rest of the nation. Thirty-five states offer some form of automatic restoration, recognizing that no public purpose is served by denying fundamental rights to people who have served their time. Florida continues to disenfranchise more than 1.5 million residents, pushing them to the fringes of civic life and making it tougher for them to be productive citizens. It’s time to join the 21st century, abandon this relic of injustice and move Florida forward.