Felons who have served their time and paid their debt to society deserve the chance to become functioning members of the democratic system again. But that's all but impossible under a process Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet adopted in 2011, which has denied thousands of felons the opportunity to vote, hold office or serve on a jury. This is a violation of basic rights doubling as voter suppression. Florida has no legitimate reason for holding onto a policy that only smacks of the Jim Crow era.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder brought Florida into the shameful limelight last week in a speech calling out several states for civil rights restrictions that he called "unnecessary," "unjust" and "counterproductive." Holder was referring to prohibitions in Florida and elsewhere that keep felons from fully exercising their civil rights. Tracing these laws to policies that marginalized blacks after the Civil War, Holder called them "profoundly outdated" and disproportionately punitive to African-Americans.
A spokesman for Scott sniffed that Holder's speech "has no effect on Florida's Constitution," a convenient dodge given the power over clemency that rests with Florida's governor and the three-member Cabinet. In 2011, shortly after taking office, Scott and the new Cabinet scrapped the streamlined process under previous Gov. Charlie Crist and raised higher hurdles to felons applying for clemency. Felons now must wait a minimum of five years to apply to have their rights restored. In the four years under Crist's reforms, 154,000 people had their rights restored. In the three years under the Scott-era changes, that number has sunk to under 1,000 as of mid January.
Denying felons the right to more fully contribute to their communities serves no purpose other than to stigmatize them, to deny them a democratic voice and to harden the wall between them and law-abiding society. It does not promote public safety, but rather undermines it. Annual reports that came with the Scott-era changes show that in recent years, felons who had their rights restored reoffended at one-third the rate of other inmates who had completed their sentences. And in its latest report, in July, the Florida Parole Commission noted that of the 420 felons who had their rights restored in 2011 and 2012, not a single one had returned to state custody with a new felony conviction.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, was right Monday to call on Scott and the Cabinet to repeal the restrictions, calling the change "a fundamental civil rights issue of our time." Florida leaders only hurt Floridians with a rule that further segregates the population between those who can contribute to society and those who cannot.