Amid the avalanche of backward legislation that has passed the Florida Legislature in the session that mercifully ended Friday night, there is at least one forward-looking bright spot. A bill sent to Gov. Rick Scott breaks the connection between released felons getting their civil rights restored and qualifying for public jobs and state occupational and professional licenses. This sensible change would let the governor and Cabinet restore the civil rights of felons without worrying about granting them access to jobs and possibly jeopardizing public safety. Attorney General Pam Bondi, who in March helped change the rules to make it unreasonably hard for felons to win back their civil rights, led the way in this progressive reform that the governor should sign into law.
Florida has hundreds of thousands of released felons who have lost the right to vote, sit on juries and run for public office. There's a backlog of more than 100,000 waiting for those rights to be restored. Many states automatically give ex-offenders their citizenship rights back, but not Florida, where rights are restored by the governor and Cabinet. And because these politicians currently must take into account whether ex-offenders should qualify for certain public jobs and state licenses, civil rights restoration may be unreasonably denied.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, SB 146, would decouple the issues so that getting back citizenship rights is no longer wrapped up in one's fitness for public employment and state licenses.
Taking this step would enhance public safety in a number of ways. It would reduce recidivism by opening up employment opportunities to ex-offenders. If their past crime is not related to the job or license they seek, they could no longer be automatically precluded from consideration. And state agencies and professional and occupational regulatory boards, which are in the best position to establish relevant criteria for positions and permits, could no longer rely on restoration of civil rights as shorthand for suitability. They would have to do more exacting screening.
Bondi pushed hard for this change. But she also helped overturn a streamlined process instituted in 2007 by Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet, which had granted tens of thousands of nonviolent ex-offenders their civil rights without an elaborate application and hearing process.
Under the new policy approved by Scott and the Cabinet, felons must wait at least five years after completing their sentences before applying for the restoration of their civil rights, and some violent released felons will have to wait seven years. This unfairly precludes people who have served their time from reintegrating back into society and becoming engaged citizens. It also smacks of political opportunism by tamping down the number of voters who may lean Democratic in advance of the 2012 election.
Bondi promised when she introduced the new restrictions on civil rights restoration that she would also push for the decoupling of state occupational licenses and rights restoration. She's making good on that promise. If Scott signs the bill, it will be a substantial step forward.