Felony convictions block too many from voting and jobs access, federal civil rights report finds

In a report to President Trump, group lauds Florida’s Amendment 4.
Early voting in Miami. [MIAMI HERALD]
Early voting in Miami. [MIAMI HERALD]
Published June 13, 2019|Updated June 13, 2019

Felony convictions have too much of an impact on access to voting rights, employment and social services, but Florida shows a promising change, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The federal commission Thursday released a report and letter to President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outlining “collateral consequences,” which go beyond the specific terms of a felony sentence, such as reduced access to jobs, housing and jury service.

Authors of the report rebuked policies that raise obstacles for felons without protecting public safety or corresponding to a person’s specific crime.

“Collateral consequences exacerbate punishment beyond the criminal conviction after an individual completes the court-imposed sentence,” the majority of the commission found.

After researching the issue and hearing expert testimony, the group concluded there is “scant evidence that collateral consequences act as a deterrent” to crime.

In fact, according to the report, those consequences encourage people to relapse into crime. “This increase in recidivism is caused by limiting or by completely barring formerly incarcerated persons’ access to personal and family support.”

Commission Chairwoman Catherine Lhamon said it makes “logical sense” to limit restrictions to those that relate to public safety or the underlying crime, “and it makes no sense to connect it to anything else.”

In many places, a criminal conviction can lead to a suspended driver’s license, for example, whether or not someone committed a crime behind the wheel.

“These restrictions severely limit employment opportunities, leaving people unable to support themselves, which can lead to recidivism, putting the public’s safety at risk,” the report claimed.

Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the group that pushed for Amendment 4, said policies should make it easier for felons to go from incarceration to reintegration.

The restrictions listed in the report “do exactly the opposite of that,” he said.

In its analysis of voting rights, the report highlighted Florida and cited Tampa Bay Times reporting showing an outsize impact of Amendment 4 on black voters in Tampa.

“… At the start of 2019, black people represented 22 percent of Tampa’s registered voters; but on the first day the amendment took effect (January 8), black people accounted for 47 percent of new voter registrations. Black voters constituted 35 percent of new voter registrations in Tampa during the first week of the amendment’s implementation alone. These numbers illustrate the disproportionate effect of (sic) felony disenfranchisement has had on black voters in just one city in Florida.”

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

“Florida was in the middle of massive change” as the commission was studying the issue, Lhamon said.

The report was finalized before the Florida Legislature passed a bill this spring that will create hurdles for many felons to overcome before registering to vote, including paying off restitution, court fees and fines. Gov. DeSantis has said he intends to sign the bill.

Part of the commission’s research involved examining comparable voting rights rules in Alabama. One paper by University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University researchers found that when former felons met all other qualifications to register to vote, one in three who applied were denied because they still owed court debt.

“Florida was a shining beacon of hope. But the degree to which that shines has significantly darkened,” Lhamon said.

For the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the report’s recommendations mostly line up with their own.

“Collateral consequences are kind of the unseen ice at the bottom of the iceberg,” said Neil Volz, the group’s political director.

He called Amendment 4 a “massive expansion of democracy” and said volunteers are working to help people become eligible to vote. But they care about more than that.

When the group surveys its members, difficulties finding a good job are at the top of their concerns, Volz said.

“How are we going to embrace the idea that when a debt is paid it’s paid, if the on-ramp to a productive life doesn’t exist?”

A study cited in the report found that only 55 percent of people released from incarceration report any earnings in the next year. For those who were employed, only 1 in 5 made more than $15,000 that year.

Meade said poverty has to be considered from before someone ever commits a crime, throughout their entire experience with the criminal justice system.

Volz lauded language in a criminal justice reform bill that would make it easier for people with prior felony convictions to get occupational licenses for everything from barbering to auctioneering. The bill was approved and awaits the governor’s action.

He acknowledged that in certain cases, a past conviction can “give insight” into someone’s fitness for a certain job. But in general, his group wants as few blanket restrictions as possible.

“Our view is that everybody can be restored,” he said.

The commission is a federal group created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Commissioners, half appointed by the president and half by Congress, serve six-year terms. At the time of the report, the commission comprised four Democrats, three Independents and one Republican (Peter Kirsanow, who wrote that he disagreed with the “blanket recommendation” on felon voting).