Florida’s Board of Executive Clemency seemed to advance major reforms last week regarding how most people who have served felony sentences can regain their civil rights. But what really happened? The news, it appears, is less than it seemed.
Here’s what occurred: Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet — Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried — convened as Florida’s Board of Executive Clemency. They essentially made two decisions:
1. They decided that people eligible to regain the right to vote under Amendment 4 would now “automatically” regain two other civil rights — eligibility to serve on juries and to hold public office. These three rights traditionally had been restored together by the Clemency Board. To be clear, these decisions didn’t restore anyone’s right to vote that day.
2. They eliminated five- to seven-year waiting periods that dated back to Gov. Rick Scott’s tenure, which were adopted at then-Attorney General Pam Bondi’s urging. People couldn’t even apply for restoration of these civil rights until at least five years after completing their felony sentences, including any probation.
Here’s how we got here. When Charlie Crist was governor, he and the Cabinet restored these three civil rights to about 155,000 people during his four-year term. Then came Rick Scott. During his eight years as governor, he and the Cabinet restored these same civil rights to only about 3,500 people. That’s 155,000 in four years vs. 3,500 in eight.
Fast-forward to 2018 and the ballot initiative known as Amendment 4. Passed by nearly two-thirds of Florida voters, this amendment to Florida’s Constitution restores the right to vote — but not other complementary civil rights — to most who have served felony sentences. This didn’t involve the executive clemency process at all. (This was a landmark change along the lines of action taken by Gov. Reubin Askew and the Cabinet during the mid-’70s, although that was executive action.)
Advocates believed that Amendment 4 would restore voting eligibility to 1.4 million people in Florida. That’s purportedly the estimated number of former felons who had not been convicted of murder or “felony sexual offenses.” But then, the Legislature and DeSantis subsequently enacted a law that first requires payment of all court fines, fees and restitution to satisfy completion of sentence requirements under Amendment 4.
This definition was a first for Florida. Even the highly restrictive clemency rules implemented during the Scott administration didn’t require full payment of fines and fees to regain these three civil rights.
Almost all who pass through the criminal justice system incur significant fines and fees. Many jurisdictions couldn’t even tell people how much they owed. Not surprisingly, far fewer people than expected have regained voting eligibility under Amendment 4.
In fact, under DeSantis to date, fewer people have regained these civil rights than during a comparable period under Scott. So that’s the quick history.
When convening as the Clemency Board, the governor and Cabinet have broad discretion essentially to take any action or deny any action including involving the clemency rules. For example, last week, they could have adopted a rule restoring these civil rights, including the right to vote, to people after serving felony sentences without first requiring payment of fines and fees. But they didn’t.
Instead, felons who have served their sentences, including probation — but still have outstanding legal financial obligations — can apply to the Clemency Board for relief. But given the system’s current capacities, it could be quickly overwhelmed if even a fraction of the eligible felons actually applied. And that’s not even reaching the question of how the governor and Cabinet would respond.
Actual help is coming from other quarters. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition has been leveraging donations to help people pay their fines and fees. And State Attorneys Andrew Warren in Hillsborough and Kathy Fernandez Rundle in Miami-Dade have created special proceedings to help facilitate.
So here’s where things stand. Once people are eligible to regain the right to vote under Amendment 4, the Clemency Board now routinely restores their civil rights to sit on juries and hold public office as well. This is a necessary step, but not yet sufficient. The governor and Cabinet could have done so much more. And didn’t.
Mark Schlakman is senior program director for Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.