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A Times Editorial

A step backward on civil rights

Just as the Florida Legislature is advised that ex-felons should get more help re-entering society to reduce recidivism and prison populations, Attorney General Pam Bondi wants to make it harder for felons to get their civil rights restored. She wants the state to repeal the reforms for nonviolent ex-felons established in 2007 and return to a process where each offender has to go through a long procedure before winning back the rights of citizenship. This is a giant step backward and a waste of resources with questionable long-term benefit to public safety.

For historical reasons that are grounded in racial animus, Florida makes it difficult for people leaving prison to regain their civil rights. Hundreds of thousands of Florida residents are denied the right to vote due to prior convictions, and a disproportionate number of those are African-Americans. Cynically, Republicans have traditionally stood against civil rights restoration because it would likely add Democratic voters to the rolls.

But to the credit of then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and two of three since-departed Cabinet members, the civil rights restoration process was streamlined in April 2007. It allows largely nonviolent ex-felons who have fully paid their debt to society to get their rights back without the need for a hearing before the governor and Cabinet sitting as the clemency board.

This was a positive first step. According to the Florida Parole Commission, in the 17 months before the rule change, about 16,500 offenders won their rights back. Since then more than 154,000 have had their rights restored. But because it wasn't an automatic process and ex-offenders had to pay restitution before their application was considered, not nearly as many people got their rights back as could have.

With too little staff to process applications, the commission says there are more than 100,000 ex-felons with applications pending, and about 4,000 more are filed every month. This backlog could take years to address even under the streamlined system. Bondi would make matters much worse.

The attorney general and others who oppose automatically granting ex-felons their rights make a public safety argument, but that's a red herring. Ex-offenders win back a very limited bundle of rights that includes the right to vote, serve on juries and run for public office. Gun rights are not restored in this process.

In addition, there are a host of occupational licenses that the state only grants to people with their civil rights intact. But Florida makes a mistake by entangling the right to vote with a decision to allow someone with a prior felony a license to work in certain occupations. The Legislature could easily unlink these types of determinations, as was recommended by Gov. Jeb Bush's ex-offender task force in 2006. That way, public safety risks in each case could be weighed by the regulatory agencies that issue occupational licenses.

Bondi is a former prosecutor who should understand that the best way to keep people from returning to crime and prison is to make it easier for them to find work and become a contributing members of society. The right to vote gives someone both dignity and a direct stake in him government, moving him toward reintegration. Nonviolent offenders who have served their time deserve an opportunity to lead a productive life with their civil rights restored, but Bondi would make it tougher for them to succeed — and easier for them to return to crime and prison at taxpayer expense. Florida should not be so shortsighted or mean-spirited.

A step backward on civil rights 02/28/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 28, 2011 5:07pm]
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