TALLAHASSEE — Desmond Meade has won international acclaim for his voting-rights advocacy and helped thousands of convicted felons like him be able to cast ballots in Florida.
But the 53-year-old husband and father hasn’t redeemed himself enough for Gov. Ron DeSantis to grant a pardon.
The Republican governor on Wednesday rejected Meade’s request for a pardon, marking the second time in six months that Meade’s appeal for clemency was denied.
DeSantis justified his decision by pointing to Meade’s dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Army three decades ago.
But Meade said he is a victim of political infighting between DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who, as a member of the state Board of Executive Clemency, put forward Meade’s application for a pardon in September and again on Wednesday.
“At the end of the day, the decision not to grant me a pardon is purely a political decision and I just happen to be a casualty of a war that’s going on, a disagreement that’s going on between the governor and our commissioner of agriculture,” Meade, the executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, is considering a challenge to DeSantis in next year’s election. She has been sharply critical of the governor on issues such as the coronavirus pandemic and his approach to a 2018 constitutional amendment that restores voting rights to felons who’ve completed their sentences.
The decision to deny a pardon for Meade came on the same day that the Board of Executive Clemency made changes in clemency rules that will help many felons get civil rights restored. But Fried lashed out at DeSantis in a news release following the denial of the Meade petition, noting that the governor pushed through a candidate with a rocky military record to serve as chief judge of the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
“This governor continues denying rights to a deserving Floridian in Desmond Meade on the basis of a long-ago military dishonorable discharge, but had no issue with appointing a chief administrative judge who had been discharged for poor conduct from the Navy,” Fried said in the news release. “This hypocritical grandstanding underlies the fact that today’s changes to Florida’s clemency rules, while an improvement, will still needlessly leave thousands of Floridians without their civil and voting rights.”
Meade, a onetime homeless drug addict who graduated from law school after his release from prison, became the face of the movement behind what appeared on the 2018 ballot as Amendment 4, earning him a spot on Time magazine’s 2019 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
But DeSantis, a former U.S. Navy officer, said Meade’s dishonorable discharge disqualifies him for a pardon.
“As a former military officer, a dishonorable discharge is the highest punishment that a court martial may render. I consider it very serious. I’m not saying that he hadn’t done good things, but I would want that as a precondition for us doing the state case, that that military dishonorable discharge be addressed,” the governor said during Wednesday’s clemency board meeting.
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At DeSantis’ urging, the Board of Executive Clemency on Wednesday approved series of changes to the clemency process and made it easier for felons who have paid court-ordered fines, fees and restitution to have their civil rights --- the right to vote, serve on a jury and run for public office --- restored without hearings before the clemency board.
The new clemency rules eliminated five- and seven-year waiting periods imposed by former Gov. Rick Scott, former Attorney General Pam Bondi and other clemency board members in 2011. Florida’s Board of Executive Clemency is made up of the governor, attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner.
It’s unclear how many Florida felons will have their clemency cases expedited as a result of Wednesday’s action, but Meade said the revised rules will clear the way for thousands of “returning citizens” to have their rights restored without going through the lengthy and cumbersome process that has been in place for a decade.
Meade said Wednesday’s victory on the new clemency rules overrode his personal loss. His organization raised $27 million to help felons pay their outstanding financial obligations so they could register and vote in the November election. Meade said the group cleared off debt for 44,000 Floridians, enabling them to register and vote.
Under the approved clemency changes, those people would have not only their voting rights but their other civil rights restored, Meade noted.
“So you can see at the end of the day, there’s still a lot to smile about,” he said.
Meade conceded he was disappointed at the rejection of his request for a pardon, which would allow him to practice law in Florida, The clemency process is focused on “how you transform your life … and whether or not you’ve been in trouble” since being released from prison, he said.
“It gets a little frustrating to have to keep going back and talk about” a court martial that occurred over 30 years ago, he added.
“And to have to speak on it, I mean, what else is there to speak on? At the end of the day, I’ve owned up to every mistake that I’ve made in my life and I’ve moved forward, and I believe I’ve gone above and beyond to show that not only have I been quote unquote rehabilitated but I’ve committed my life to giving back to the community, to making this world a better place for everyone,” Meade said.
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