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A Times Editorial

Felons should have civil rights automatically restored

The highly restrictive rules limiting felons' voting in Florida that were put in place two years ago at the urging of Attorney General Pam Bondi are having their predictable effect. Since then, fewer than 400 people out of hundreds of thousands have gotten back their right to vote. It's no wonder the issue was featured last week among the concerns Florida's black lawmakers brought to the governor. Florida's Clemency Board, made up of Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, have returned Florida to a process that suppresses black voting strength under the guise of criminal justice. The policy should be reversed and automatic civil rights restoration adopted.

Scott was unmoved when Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus, urged him to ease the restrictions on civil rights restoration and bring Florida more in line with other states. The governor claimed the rules are in part responsible for Florida's low crime rate. But that assertion is in stark contrast to a 2011 Florida Parole Commission report that studied 31,000 cases over 2009 and 2010 and found that recidivism for felons who had their rights restored was about 11 percent, while the overall reoffense rate in the state is more than 33 percent. This suggests that felons who have their rights restored are better reintegrating into society.

Florida took a big step backward when the state Clemency Board unanimously adopted new rules in March 2011 requiring felons to wait five to seven years after finishing their sentences to apply for the return of their civil rights. The rules supplanted reforms put in place during the tenure of Gov. Charlie Crist that allowed for a streamlined process for the restoration of civil rights for largely nonviolent ex-offenders. Those rights include the right to vote, serve on juries and hold elected office.

Scott and Bondi insist the tightening of the rules is about people proving they have reformed before regaining their rights, and not about keeping a disproportionate number of African-Americans who tend to vote Democratic from the voting booth. But the numbers tell the real story. From the time the Crist reforms took effect in April 2007 until March 2011, 154,178 people had their rights restored. Since then, 370 restorations have been approved. The stunning difference is undoubtedly impacting elections in a state in which a large percentage of felons are black and presidential elections are decided by razor-thin margins.

Meanwhile, about 4,000 felons are released every month, adding to the number of disenfranchised Floridians. Estimates are that by the end of the governor and Cabinet members' terms in 2014, Florida could have as many as 600,000 people who are without the right to vote. This doesn't happen in states that have adopted automatic civil rights restoration of one kind or another. But Southern states, in particular, have resisted the trend.

Basic fairness says that once a person has completed his sentence he should regain citizenship rights. Beyond partisan politics there is no reason for Scott's rejection of the black lawmakers' reasonable request.

Felons should have civil rights automatically restored 01/20/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 7:59pm]
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