Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is using the issue of civil rights restoration for ex-felons to position herself as a law-and-order candidate for governor in 2010. A letter Sink sent late last month to the governor and fellow Cabinet members who make up the state's Clemency Board raises concerns over 13 ex-offenders who were identified by an auditor general's report as having been given their civil rights back when they didn't qualify. She wants those mistakes corrected, but her letter is more about politics than good policy. The Democratic candidate for governor should focus on the thousands of qualified ex-offenders who are still waiting for relief.
While mistakes on civil rights restoration should be corrected, there are far more consequential problems with the process. In large measure, the failing of the system is that too many eligible nonviolent offenders aren't gaining their rights back in a timely manner. Sink's concern and the Clemency Board's time and attention should be focused on eliminating barriers to full citizenship for ex-offenders who have served their time.
Gov. Charlie Crist made important strides when he pushed to expand the number of nonviolent ex-felons eligible to have their civil rights restored without a hearing. Before the Clemency Board changed the rules in April 2007, only 26 percent of ex-offenders qualified for "automatic" civil rights restoration. After the rule change, 80 percent became eligible.
But since then Crist has not been a leader for significant added reforms or for sufficient resources for the state's Parole Commission, which investigates cases to determine which ex-felons qualify for civil rights restoration. The agency has been woefully understaffed for years. Its repeated requests to the Legislature for additional staffing levels to handle the clemency caseload have been ignored. In the prior fiscal year, the commission had its budget cut 20 percent, resulting in the elimination of 24 staff positions even as it had requested 42 added staffers to handle the workload. Meanwhile, the September auditor general's report found that the commission would need 71 employees working full time for an entire year to address the backlog of cases.
A big reason the commission is so swamped is that Crist has not agreed to take the sensible step of separating the restoration of civil rights from the opportunity to obtain state jobs and occupational licensing. Granting ex-offenders their civil rights — the right to vote, serve on a jury and hold public office — doesn't implicate public safety. But because various state agency rules and some statutes limit certain occupational and business licenses and public sector jobs to people with civil rights, the commission does an extensive individual investigation into each case. Giving an ex-felon back his right to vote would be a lot easier if it didn't also qualify him for a private investigator's license.
Crist could issue an executive order directing state agencies under his jurisdiction to no longer consider civil rights restoration when awarding jobs or licenses. State agencies would then have to make independent judgments on each applicant's eligibility and public safety risk without defaulting to the Parole Commission's judgment. And the process of civil rights restoration could become much more automatic.
In her letter, Sink called for convening the Clemency Board at next week's Cabinet meeting so that she and her fellow officials can address the problem of unqualified ex-offenders mistakenly getting their rights back. This problem is not huge. It just plays well with the electorate. The really big problem at the commission is that so many Floridians who paid their debt to society are still waiting for their promised second chance.