DeSantis and Cabinet end 5-year clemency wait for Florida felons

It restores the right to serve on a jury and hold office for people with felony convictions who had their rights restored by Amendment 4.
Gov. Ron DeSantis waves after delivering the State address during the joint session of the Florida Legislature at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
Gov. Ron DeSantis waves after delivering the State address during the joint session of the Florida Legislature at the Capitol in Tallahassee on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published March 10, 2021|Updated March 10, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet approved major changes to the state’s clemency process on Wednesday that automatically restores the right to hold office and serve on a jury for Floridians with felony convictions who have completed their sentence and paid off their court debts.

The changes, proposed by DeSantis on Tuesday, also remove a minimum 5-year waiting period for those with felony convictions to apply to have their rights restored, eliminating a measure imposed by Gov. Rick Scott a decade ago.

“I believe that those who have had their voting rights restored, it makes sense to restore the other civil rights,” DeSantis said Wednesday.

The changes were long-sought by civil rights advocates, including the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the successful 2018 change to the Florida Constitution known as Amendment 4. That amendment, which DeSantis opposed, restored the right to vote to nearly all felons who completed “all terms” of their sentence, wiping out a Jim Crow-era law meant to keep Black Floridians off the voter rolls.

But like Amendment 4, Monday’s changes have a major catch: people with felonies must still pay back all court fees, fines and restitution to victims before having their rights automatically restored. That’s the majority of people with felony convictions in the state, who are often saddled with hundreds or thousands of dollars in court user fees that they will never afford to repay.

Those with court debts can still petition the clemency board to have their rights restored, however.

The move was praised by the Rights Restoration Coalition, whose deputy director, Neil Volz, told DeSantis and the Cabinet on Wednesday that those whose civil rights are restored are three times less likely to reoffend, according to state data.

“We think that’s not only good for returning citizens, we know that’s good for the entire state,” Volz said.

The changes proposed by DeSantis are a rejection of the decade-old policies imposed by former Gov. Rick Scott and former Attorney General Pam Bondi.

In Florida, a felony conviction loses you the right to vote, serve on a jury, run for office and own or possess a firearm. Restoring those rights is up to the governor. Gov. Charlie Crist used his authority to restore the right to vote to more than 100,000 people during his tenure, but Scott immediately stopped the policy when he took office in 2011. Scott also required people wait at least five years after their sentence before applying.

Since then, clemencies have slowed to a crawl, and people with felony convictions have had to come to Tallahassee to plead their case before the governor and Cabinet, an often humiliating process where applicants are asked questions such as how many children they have by how many mothers.

The Amendment 4 effort was a response to Scott’s policies, and in 2018, nearly two thirds of voters approved of doing away with the state’s ban on felon voting.

DeSantis’ changes would not automatically restore the right to carry a firearm, and it does not apply to those convicted of murder or sex offenses.

The changes were proposed by DeSantis and approved by the Cabinet, which acts as the state’s clemency board and is made up of DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

Moody called the changes a good “first step” toward addressing the state’s backlog of clemency requests. As of last year, more than 24,000 Floridians were still waiting for the clemency board to review their applications. Some of those applications are at least 12 years old.

“I thought these rules needed to be changed,” Moody said. “I think this is going to be a huge advancement toward reducing that backlog.”

But Fried, the lone Democrat on the Cabinet, said more changes needed to be made. She proposed allowing people who owe outstanding court debts to file an affidavit with the state claiming their inability to pay.

DeSantis, who pushed the Legislature to pass a law requiring “all terms” of sentence under Amendment 4 to include those court debts, did not respond to her idea.

On Wednesday, Fried also proposed a full pardon for Desmond Meade, the leader of the Amendment 4 effort.

In September, DeSantis rejected a pardon for Meade because he was dishonorably discharge from the Army in the early 1990s. Meade was caught stealing liquor and electronics on base to support his drug habit and sentenced to three years in a military brig, according to a New York Times profile. He had other drug convictions and sentences in Florida until the early 2000s, when he went to college, graduated from law school and became one of the most important civil rights leaders in the state.

DeSantis on Wednesday quickly interrupted Fried’s pardon proposal and said he wouldn’t support it.

“He’s a dishonorable discharge from the military,” said DeSantis, a former Navy lawyer with the Judge Advocate General Corps. “As a former military officer, a dishonorable discharge is the highest punishment that a court martial may render. I consider it very serious.”

DeSantis added, “I’m not saying he hasn’t done good things,” but Meade would need to “resolve” the discharge before he would support a pardon.

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