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A Times Editorial

A shameful setback on civil rights

Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the rest of the Florida Cabinet on Wednesday made a hash of civil rights restoration for nonviolent felons who are trying to put their lives back on track. How they did it — with little public notice or input — was also appalling.

The immediate travesty is for those nonviolent released felons who will face long mandatory waiting periods before they can apply for restoration of their right to vote, sit on a jury, run for public office and qualify for certain occupational licenses. The move reverses progress Gov. Charlie Crist made in 2007 when he and two of three Cabinet members expedited the restoration process for nonviolent offenders who had completed their sentence and made restitution.

The changes led to more than 150,000 restorations, although a nagging backlog of 100,000 remains. Crist's changes gave many felons, who are disproportionately African-American and tend to register as Democrats, the right to vote. The swift reversal by Scott and Bondi, who initiated it, came without a compelling public policy justification.

It is a disgraceful setback for Florida, made worse by the way the new rules were sped through. The executive clemency board — composed of Scott, Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — was not scheduled to meet Wednesday. It was called into emergency session with little formal notice, and the proposal was not made available to the public until the meeting began. Then, public testimony was limited to 30 minutes, with each speaker allotted two minutes.

Someone needs to remind Scott and Bondi that Florida takes open meetings and public records seriously. Bondi should be particularly ashamed. The state's chief law enforcement officer has signaled her intent to let politics trump the spirit of the state's Sunshine Laws that she is sworn to defend. Only Putnam had the decency to raise concerns about the hastiness, but then he shamefully joined his fellow Republicans to hastily approve the changes.

This was never an issue of policy, only politics. The changes further stack the deck against individuals who have paid their debt to society. They are likely to add to recidivism rates because released felons will find it harder to re-enter society and lead productive lives.

When asked about the hasty approval, Scott said he saw no reason to wait "when I get comfortable with a decision." Apparently, Scott's personal comfort level is now the sole barometer for action affecting the whole state. The concerns of other elected officials, experts and constituents are irrelevant. So much for democracy.

Wednesday's maneuver was another example of Scott's unilateral tendencies. He didn't like the state's plan for high-speed rail or a prescription drug database and dumped them both, despite prior legislative approvals. He wanted to block more released felons from voting, and did so without bothering to gather facts or public input. The state is being remade to one man's liking, and Floridians should not like what they see.

A shameful setback on civil rights 03/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2011 8:04pm]
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