Charlie Crist touts justice reform for Floridians of color

Crist announced plans to restore voting rights for felons and curb gun violence on Monday in Tampa
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 11, 2021

TAMPA — During his four years as governor of Florida, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist restored the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of felons, a sweeping move subsequent Florida governors, Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis, didn’t follow.

As a gubernatorial hopeful for 2022, Crist said he’s renewing his push for felon voter restoration as part of a broad package to promote criminal justice and equality for Floridians of color.

Crist announced the plan Monday at the George Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa. He said he aims to overhaul a criminal justice system that has failed people, especially Black people and other minorities.

“For too long we have focused on incarceration when we should be focusing on rehabilitation, forgiveness and restoring and rebuilding,” Crist said.

If elected governor next November, Crist said he’d support a state law allowing felons who committed non-violent crimes to have their voting rights restored automatically upon release. He pointed to the support for Amendment 4 in 2018, which called for non-violent felons who completed “all terms” of their sentences to have their voting rights restored.

More than two thirds of voters approved the amendment, yet Florida’s Legislature passed a bill months later that required felons to first pay off all court fees, fines and restitution costs.

“Floridians should not be forced to have to pay to get their rights back,” Crist said.

Crist said his reform plan will also emphasize reducing gun violence by seeking laws for universal background checks and passing a ban on assault rifles and large magazines. In Congress, Crist has supported similar measures, including closing the “Pensacola loophole” that allows non-citizens to buy guns if they purchase a state hunting license. That’s how the gunman in a 2020 shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola — which left three dead and eight injured — acquired his weapon.

He said he also plans to invest in mentoring within neighborhoods, supporting work within the communities most affected by gun violence.

Last week, Crist attended a roundtable at the Pinellas County Urban League that emphasized the need for granular neighborhood support and funding.

There, he spoke with Maress Scott, who runs a nonprofit Quis For Life in honor of his son Marquis Scott, who was shot and killed in 2019 at 20 years old. Scott has been going person-to-person in St. Petersburg with the Black St. Pete Pledge, speaking with Black men about gun violence and the harm it causes to the community. He had heard Crist speak earlier at his church, Bethel AME, and said he likes what he’s hearing.

Crist said Monday he would work also with local elected officials and law enforcement, as well as focus on community improvement by providing better social services to reduce crime. He was joined by former Rep. Sean Shaw and Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren.

The second part of Crist’s justice reform package will be announced later in the week as he tours the state, said his press secretary, Samantha Ramirez.

Crist has come under fire for his support of chain-gangs in 1995 when he sponsored a bill supporting the practice. It was approved as part of an omnibus corrections bill that year.

When his Republican opponent for his St. Pete congressional seat, David Jolly, brought it up in a 2016 debate, Crist said it didn’t have anything to do with race, but rather high violent crime at the time.

As Florida’s Republican governor from 2007 to 2011, Crist and the Cabinet voted to change the state’s clemency rules to automatically restore the right to vote, hold office and serve on a jury to more than 150,000 Floridians with felony convictions who had completed all conditions of their sentences, including paying back restitution. (Four years later, then-Gov. Rick Scott overturned Crist’s clemency rules, including reimposing a 5-year waiting period before applying to have rights restored.)

Crist bucked many in his own party by advocating for the changes — then-Attorney General Bill McCollum, a fellow Republican, voted against them, saying “I think we’re making a grave mistake today.”

Crist, who switched to the Democratic Party in 2012, told the Times/Herald last year that some Republicans were opposed to the changes for political reasons.

“The feedback was, ‘Look, we’re winning a lot of elections, and we’ve elected a lot of governors, and why would you want to change the system that we’re doing very well in?’” Crist said last year. “I said, ‘Because I think it’s the right thing to do.’”