A new Florida Parole Commission study suggests that felons who quickly have their civil rights restored are more likely to become contributing members of society and are far less likely to reoffend. That flies in the face of antiquated assumptions that prompted Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the rest of the Florida Cabinet in March to return Florida to an outdated scheme for restoring civil rights. Armed with new evidence, the state officials should reconsider their actions, which have left tens of thousands of former prison inmates in a limbo of second-class citizenship.
The Parole Commission report, ordered by the Cabinet in March, tracked felons released from prison in 2009 and 2010 who would have benefited from the policy change pushed through in 2007 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Under the change, most released felons could automatically receive their civil rights back — including the right to vote and run for office, sit on a jury or apply for various occupational licenses — once they completed their sentences and made restitution. The idea was to end years of waiting and applying for a formal hearing, an outdated system still adhered to by only five Southern states.
The Parole Commission's report showed only 11 percent of those released under the new rules have reoffended and returned to prison. And only 41 percent of those who reoffended were actually sentenced to more prison time. That's a sharp distinction from a previous Florida Department of Corrections study that found between 2001 and 2008, 33 percent of released prisoners returned to prison. And it supports the enlightened notion that prisoners who are given the chance to fully reintegrate into the community after paying their debt to society are far less likely to return to crime.
Scott and the new Cabinet weren't willing to wait for the report's outcome before reversing the Crist-era policy to one that was more akin to the state's past, where ex-cons couldn't regain their civil rights without a formal application and hearing. In March, they passed new rules ending automatic restoration and requiring ex-offenders to wait five years, and sometimes seven, from the time of their release before they can even apply to the Clemency Board.
Bondi, who led the charge, contended felons should have to prove they can stay out of trouble before they get their rights restored. But some have suggested boldfaced political motivation. The governor and Cabinet are all Republicans, and ex-convicts who get the right to vote tend to lean Democratic. Regardless, this is a basic issue of fairness and fiscal sense.
In a democracy, restoring civil rights to felons is the just thing to do, as these people have paid their debt to society. It will also save taxpayer money. Each felon who does not return to prison reduces the need for costly prison beds. Scott, Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam prematurely reversed a sound policy. Now they should reverse themselves.