Florida’s felon disenfranchisement system under intense national glare

Even law-and-order sheriffs support helping convicted felons become full-fledged citizens again.
Dixie County Sheriff Dewey Hatcher says it's too difficult for felons to get their rights back in Florida [Steve Bousquet - Times]
Dixie County Sheriff Dewey Hatcher says it's too difficult for felons to get their rights back in Florida [Steve Bousquet - Times]
Published Sept. 11, 2018|Updated Sept. 11, 2018

TALLAHASSEE –For only the third time this year — but this time under a withering national media glare — Florida's highest elected officials sat in judgment Tuesday of people whose mistakes cost them the right to vote.

During a five-hour hearing, 90 felons made their case to Florida Gov. Rick Scott and three members of the Cabinet, asking to have their rights restored.

It was a packed house in the Cabinet room of the state Capitol, as Tuesday's hearing drew reporters and cameras from, among other outlets, NPR, The Huffington Post and The Guardian. The hearings typically attract one or two members of the Tallahassee press corps.

Only two days before, Florida's restoration of rights process was skewered on national TV by John Oliver of the HBO program Last Week Tonight. He devoted  a 13-minute segment to the Florida clemency system,  calling it "absolutely insane" and mocking Scott for creating "the disenfranchisement capital of America."

Under a policy struck down by a federal judge that remains in effect while Scott and the state appeal, anyone with a felony conviction in Florida must wait five years before petitioning the state to regain the right to vote, serve on a jury or possess a firearm.

Florida has an estimated 1.5 million felons who have been permanently stripped of the right to vote, far more than any other state. To get their rights restored, they must formally apply to make an appeal before Scott and the Cabinet, which is now composed of Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

Many had substance abuse problems that led to crimes. Some never served prison time, but were placed on probation and did service work. About 10,000 have filed appeals that are pending.

Voters will have a chance to overhaul the restoration system before Scott and the three Cabinet members are scheduled to hold their next clemency hearing on Dec. 5. A month before then, on Nov. 6, voters will decide on Amendment 4 that would restore the right to vote to most felons after they complete their sentences, if 60 percent of voters approve.

The lucky ones who became full citizens Tuesday include a small-town minister, a youth outreach expert who fights inner-city crime and a civilian worker for a county sheriff.

READ MORE: Florida's fight over voting rights shifts to Atlanta courtroom

Douglas Cobb is a pastor, a youth baseball coach and a devoted father in Dixie County whose drug abuse made him commit non-violent crimes a long time ago against family members and friends.

Cobb was granted a full pardon from Scott and the Cabinet with the help of a long-time friend, Dixie County Sheriff Dewey Hatcher, who vouched for his neighbor's character.

"I've known Doug since he was a boy, and I remember when he came back to Dixie County from rehab," Hatcher testified. "I've got all the confidence in him. If not, I wouldn't be standing here."

Hatcher has been sheriff for 18 years in a very conservative county and his office arrested Cobb, but the sheriff said Cobb deserves a second chance.
"I'm feeling awesome. I just thank God," said Cobb, accompanied by his wife and three young children.

Speaking later to reporters, the sheriff said of Florida's restoration process: "It should be easier. Until you go through this, you don't know what an arduous process it is. A lot of people get discouraged. It takes a lot."

He said all non-violent offenders should regain their rights automatically after completing their sentences.

The sheriff's view brought a show of support on Twitter from a key senator in Florida, Republican Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg.

Anthony Benitez, 52, of Tampa, a carpenter with a college engineering degree, didn't get his rights back, 11 years after he petitioned the state. He said he has overcome drug and alcohol problems that led to multiple DUIs and fights with police officers.

"This was all 21 years ago. I'm not the same person," Benitez pleaded. Scott took Benitez's case under advisement, with no action.

Scott peppered people with questions, such as when they stopped drinking or doing drugs, the ages of their children, and past run-ins with the law or unpaid fines.

"You're no longer doing drugs?" Scott asked one man. "Why not?"

The five-year waiting period was implemented by Scott, Bondi, Putnam and another Cabinet member after their election in 2010. A statewide petition drive collected nearly 1 million signatures to get Amendment 4 before voters this fall.

Scott, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate against Democrat Bill Nelson, supports the existing system. With his support, the state is now appealing U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker's decision to strike down the rights restoration system as arbitrary and unconstitutional.

Amendment 4 does not distinguish between violent and non-violent felons, but people convicted of murder and sex crimes would not be eligible to regain their rights if it passes.

The political committee that supports Amendment 4, Floridians for a Fair Democracy, based in Clearwater, spent $3.579 million in the week ending Aug. 31, with nearly all of the money spent on a "media buy," which likely means TV advertising.

The group has raised $14.4 million so far with large contributions from a number of wealthy out-of-state individuals and from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The permanent elimination of civil rights to felons has been in effect in the state for more than a century, under Republican and Democratic governors, and was lifted only during the four-year term of Charlie Crist, from 2007 to 2011, when 155,315 offenders who were released had their rights restored.

Under Scott, only about 4,350 offenders have had their rights restored.

Also receiving an unconditional pardon Tuesday: Trevon Simmons, 38, who now lives with his wife in North Carolina and runs a program in Fort Pierce, Fla., that helps young people stay out of trouble. The program is called Creating Tomorrow's Leaders.

Simmons served seven years in prison for an armed holdup of a store and left prison in 2005. The police chief of Fort Pierce, sheriff of Port St. Lucie County and Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, all supported the petition of Simmons, who took full responsibility for his past behavior and said he didn't mind having to work for years to regain his rights.

"No matter your past, who you are and where you're headed means a lot more," Simmons said. "I wanted to vote in every election but couldn't. It was like having to sit on the sidelines and watch a game you want to play in."

Information from The News Service of Florida was used in this report.