Gov. Charlie Crist is to be congratulated for helping 115,000 ex-felons get their civil rights restored. His efforts at easing the path for former nonviolent offenders to return to society as fully participating members are laudatory. But there is more to be done. Hundreds of thousands of ex-felons are waiting for the return of their basic rights of citizenship, and Crist could provide additional relief just by changing a few executive branch rules.
The benefits of civil rights restoration are fundamental but ultimately quite few: the right to vote, serve on a jury and hold public office. In addition, through a patchwork of rules within various state agencies and some statutes, certain state occupational and business licenses and public sector jobs are limited to people who have their civil rights.
This coupling of work opportunities and the grant of civil rights should be undone. It intertwines something that doesn't implicate the public safety — the right to vote — with something that does, such as whether someone gets a license as a private investigator. The state is going to be more reluctant to award an ex-felon his civil rights if that act also helps him qualify for particular professional licenses.
Crist could speed this along by issuing an executive order directing state agencies under his control that civil rights restoration should not be a consideration in employment or occupational licensing. He could also urge Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson to do likewise within the agencies under their supervision.
This idea already has support in the Legislature. Legislation passed the Senate but did not get through the House this year that would have eliminated any lingering statutory connection between rights restoration and employment.
By disconnecting the two, the rights restoration process would no longer hold any public safety risk. And the occupational licensing process would be more protective of public safety since the state agency in charge of issuing each particular occupational license would be making the eligibility judgment, rather than defaulting to the Parole Commission. Once the two issues are separated, there is no longer a justification for the Parole Commission to do extensive individual investigations into each rights restoration case. The only valid consideration would be whether the ex-offender completed the terms of his sentence.
With the leadership of the governor and the concurrence of two Cabinet members, Florida could return to the Executive Clemency rules of 1975 under Gov. Reuben Askew, when restoration of rights was automatic after an ex-offender received final release from any parole or probation.
This would solve another problem of resources. The Parole Commission is buried in rights restoration cases. The current backlog is about 60,000 with another 4,000 added to its review pile every month. In addition, there are still hundreds of thousands of older cases waiting for more in-depth handling. Yet, the commission's recent request for 42 additional staff members was ignored and its budget was cut by 20 percent.
Recommendations for disconnecting state occupational licensing and civil rights restoration have come from some unlikely sources, including a task force established by former Gov. Jeb Bush. The idea is nonpartisan because it makes good sense.
Granting 115,000 ex-felons a new lease on life is commendable, and Crist continues to say all of the right things about giving ex-offenders a "second chance." Now he should act further by changing a few troublesome rules.