The opportunity to regain their civil rights doesn't do ex-felons much good if they don't know they qualify. While Florida has made some important strides in restoring civil rights to nonviolent felons under Gov. Charlie Crist, notification in many cases has been lacking. As a result, far fewer ex-offenders have registered to vote than what would be expected from a pool of tens of thousands of newly re-enfranchised citizens.
A chief executive with his eye on the prize would address this deficiency with action and resources. But the governor still has a way to go to show that he is fully committed to bringing the reality of civil rights restoration in line with his promise.
"Everybody deserves a second chance" Crist told a recent conference on rights restoration. Giving ex-offenders an easier path to full citizenship, including the right to vote, serve on juries and run for public office, was a promise Crist made during his campaign for governor and a positive sign from a former legislator who proudly wore the moniker "Chain Gang Charlie."
Yet, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of 88,000 ex-felons who are newly eligible voters, less than 10 percent — 8,200 — have registered to vote. It appears that this is at least partly a function of ex-offenders failing to be duly notified of their new status and rights restoration.
Notification for this group of ex-felons is tricky. Many are part of a long-standing backlog of restoration cases, which means their "current address" of record may be outdated. And once a notification letter is returned as undeliverable, no further effort is made to contact its intended recipient. According to the Florida Parole Commission, "hundreds" of such notice letters have been returned.
A little more effort in these older cases is in order, although it is clear that the commission does not have the resources to track these people down. The commission lost 24 staff members due to budget cuts this fiscal year, even though it had requested an additional 42 staffers to handle the workload of the agency. This disproportionate slashing of the commission's budget suggests a disinterest in its work.
It's not clear why Crist refuses to consider a request by the American Civil Liberties Union to include voter registration forms in the mailing sent with every rights restoration certificate. This would be an easy and sensible step in helping people regain their franchise. Could it be that Republicans know that ex-offenders are more likely to register as Democrats?
Within the next few weeks, the commission expects to have available online the list of all ex-offenders who have had their rights restored. This will make it easier for ex-felons to check their own status. That's good news. But more needs to be done to alert ex-felons to their rights restoration and make voter registration more convenient. Crist deserves credit for what he has done on this issue, but with a few more steps, he could make his record even more commendable.