Anthony Benitez of Tampa is a carpenter with an engineering degree who long ago left behind the addiction-fueled crimes that led to his felony record. He can’t vote.
Clifton Sanders Jr. of Orange Park is a retired minister who once cashed a $238 paycheck that bounced and landed him a forgery charge. He can’t vote.
Desmond Meade of Orlando is a law school graduate who spent time in prison for drugs and other crimes committed while he was homeless. He can’t vote.
There are hundreds of thousands of Floridians like Benitez, Sanders and Meade. They are felons who served their time, paid their debts and rebuilt their lives. Yet Florida deprives them of the most basic right of citizenship.
Now Florida voters have a remarkable opportunity to remedy that unfairness. Amendment 4 on the November ballot would require the automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who have completed all the requirements of their sentence, including serving prison time and paying victim restitution. Passing this constitutional amendment, which does not apply to anyone convicted of murder or felony sex crimes, would end the wait for thousands of people who have applied for clemency through an antiquated system that serves no purpose but to perpetually punish them.
Florida is one of only four states whose state constitution permanently disenfranchises felons. To regain their civil rights, they must petition the state Clemency Board, composed of the governor and three elected Cabinet members. When Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, he and the Cabinet reversed years of progress under Scott’s predecessor, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who had streamlined the process for thousands of nonviolent felons. By the time Crist left office, more than 150,000 Floridians had regained their rights. Then Scott turned back the clock.
Now anyone seeking to regain the right to vote, own a firearm or serve on a jury must wait at least five years before even applying for clemency. Then they have to submit reams of paperwork — including original court documents, which are expensive and can be difficult to obtain for someone who has moved — and make an in-person appeal before Scott and the Clemency Board, who meet just four times a year in Tallahassee. Scott readily acknowledges at the start of the hearings that “there’s absolutely no standards so we can make any decisions we want.” Usually, that decision is no. Scott has to be on the prevailing side of every vote. Frequently, he takes cases “under advisement” and never acts on them. During Scott’s two terms, fewer than 5,000 people have had their rights restored, a shameful injustice.
A federal judge agreed earlier this year, denouncing Florida’s “vote-restoration scheme” as a violation of the First Amendment rights of free association and free expression. “A person convicted of a crime may have long ago exited the prison cell and completed probation,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote. “Her voting rights, however, remain locked in a dark crypt. Only the state has the key — but the state has swallowed it. Only when the state has digested and passed that key in the unforeseeable future — maybe in five years, maybe in 50 — along with the possibility of some virus-laden stew of viewpoint discrimination and partisan, religious, or racial bias, does the state in an ‘act of mercy,’ unlock the former felon’s voting rights from its hiding place.” Those skewering words, predictably, did not move Scott, who appealed the ruling.
None of this serves any reasonable purpose, nor does it make the public safer as some opponents wrongly claim. On the contrary, felons who are able to reintegrate into society are far less likely to re-offend and wind up back in prison. The recidivism rate for all felons in Florida is about 26 percent, while the rate among those whose rights were restored under Crist is half that. Treating ex-offenders as full-fledged citizens is key to reducing recidivism, which saves taxpayers money.
A study released this year by the Washington Economics Group, a Republican-leaning research firm, estimated that passage of Amendment 4 would result in 3,500 fewer inmates entering the prison system annually. It costs $20,000 to feed and house a prisoner for one year, meaning Florida taxpayers could potentially save $70 million. That doesn’t even include savings on new prison construction and maintenance, a reduced burden on the courts and the positive economic impact of former offenders working in jobs instead of sitting in cells.
More than 1.5 million Floridians are prohibited from voting because of a constitutional anachronism that wastes money and deprives people of a second chance. Amendment 4, which reached the ballot after more than 800,000 Floridians signed a citizen petition, would correct Florida’s status as an outlier of disenfranchisement. The measure needs 60 percent approval to pass. Voters should have no qualms about supporting the automatic restoration of voting rights for people who have served their time and who deserve to be treated as full participants in society.
On Amendment 4, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting Yes.