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Mark Schlakman

Here's how Cabinet can fix rights restoration

Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson will revisit concerns surrounding the licensing of mortgage brokers during a Cabinet meeting today.

The attorney general will likely renew his proposal to address these concerns through the civil rights restoration process. The CFO will likely maintain that more meaningful eligibility criteria could be established by regulators outside of the clemency process that would facilitate appropriate postrelease employment for ex-offenders and more effectively address public safety concerns relating to any given job, including positions of trust and confidence like mortgage brokers.

The governor, who expressed support for the approach advocated by the CFO at an earlier Cabinet meeting, will play a pivotal role. Crist can help move this agenda forward by signing an executive order that would implement provisions of a comprehensive re-entry bill that passed the Senate this year but died in the House. Sink and Bronson oversee certain regulators that the governor does not supervise. The governor and Cabinet oversee certain regulators collectively. They can take similar action on these fronts. Lawmakers could revisit these matters next year.

Such action would underscore that the status of ex-offenders' civil rights would no longer be the controlling factor for purposes of determining eligibility for certain postrelease employment. The nature of the offenses committed would logically carry more weight.

Once employment restriction issues are separated from the rights restoration process and more effectively addressed apart from clemency, there would be no need to distinguish the nature of offenses for purposes of simply determining one's fitness to vote. The three tiers of review that were established by the April 2007 rule changes, which can be cumbersome and costly, could be collapsed into one resembling the approach taken under former Gov. Reubin Askew, simply to verify completion of sentence.

Earlier this summer during the Department of Corrections' Restoration of Rights Summit, Crist announced that the civil rights of 115,000 ex-offenders were restored since the clemency rules were changed last year. While this clearly represents significant progress, that number is somewhat illusory.

About 90,000 were older cases dating back to the early '80s, and 25,000 were more recent cases pending final action by the governor and Cabinet sitting as the Clemency Board.

Many notification letters sent by the Office of Executive Clemency were returned because the addresses were out of date. Those ex-offenders are unlikely to register to vote because they don't know they are eligible.

While the governor and Cabinet deserve recognition for enabling more largely nonviolent ex-offenders to regain their civil rights to vote, serve on a jury and hold public office, more than 300,000 older rights restoration cases identified by the Department of Corrections for rights restoration review ultimately were deemed ineligible under the new rules.

Beyond these older cases, the Parole Commission, which is the investigative arm of the board, is confronting a backlog of 60,000 more recent rights restoration cases that will be difficult to eliminate since the commission's request for 42 additional staff positions to process rights restoration cases in timely fashion was ignored by the 2008 Legislature.

Beyond this backlog, the Department of Corrections transmits the names of about 4,000 ex-offenders to the commission every month for rights restoration review upon release or termination from probation.

Despite the positive effect of the April 2007 rule changes, the rights restoration process is flawed and must be re-engineered.

Here are some steps the state can take to ensure more ex-offenders who have completed their sentences can regain their civil rights to vote, serve on a jury and hold public office:

• The governor and Cabinet should revisit the long-standing clemency rule that requires ex-offenders to pay restitution obligations in full as a precondition for rights restoration.

• The governor and Cabinet should readopt a 1975 Rule of Executive Clemency that provided for essentially automatic restoration of rights upon completion of sentence.

• The governor and Cabinet should require that civil rights restoration review be initiated before offenders complete their sentences rather than afterward.

• The governor should direct the state Division of Elections to provide local elections supervisors with contact information for ex-offenders who have regained their rights to vote to help reach this newly eligible population.

With an eye toward the November elections and with the approval of at least two Cabinet members, Crist could restore the civil rights of many more ex-offenders who already have completed their sentences. Only then will the rights restoration process adequately address both the larger public interest and the needs of Florida's ex-offenders.

Mark Schlakman serves as senior program director at the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University. He previously served as special counsel to Gov. Lawton Chiles and as an adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush during his first several months in office.

Here's how Cabinet can fix rights restoration 08/11/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 8:15pm]
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