1. Opinion

Column: Restore civil rights for nonviolent Florida felons

Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Published Mar. 28, 2017

I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was April 5, 2007. I was driving home, passing the neighborhood 7-Eleven when what I heard on the car radio infuriated me. How dare he?

He was Gov. Charlie Crist. He was instigating a change that would allow nonviolent, convicted felons to vote after finishing their sentence. How could a Republican governor, a fellow Republican, do such a thing?

I had been elected to two terms as a Delray city commissioner and five terms as a Palm Beach County commissioner. My self-righteous indignation turned to shame when four years later I left a Texas prison after pleading guilty 21 months earlier to a federal count of honest services fraud, a felony charge stemming from votes that steered business to my husband, a bond underwriter. Handcuffs and prison cells were never part of my life plan.

When Crist made his decision to allow nonviolent felons to vote, he reversed a decades-long policy of not allowing felons to get back this right unless approved by a vote of the governor and Cabinet — a long, arduous process that makes the effort all but meaningless.

Yes, I was furious when Crist tried to make it easier for felons to win back the right to vote. If someone decided to commit a crime, my belief was, they have given up their rights voluntarily. It is a privilege to vote and one that should not be afforded people who commit crimes against society. I had no problem with its being a life sentence.

After Rick Scott was elected governor in 2010, Scott and the Cabinet reversed Crist's policy. Now, a felon must wait five or seven years before applying to have their rights restored and then get added to a very long list of applicants waiting for their turn to be considered by the Clemency Board, which meets four times each year. After five years, the governor and Cabinet approved fewer than 2,000 of the 20,000 applicants who have attempted to avail themselves of this daunting process.

While I was in prison, I learned the word "felon" doesn't quite explain it. There are all types of felons, from murderers and career criminals to folks who poach an alligator or tamper with a car odometer. Many Floridians would be astonished to know the list of things that are considered felonies.

As I became one of the 1.6 million Floridians who cannot vote, I became a believer in the ''once you have paid your debt to society, you should get your rights back'' club. I was self-righteous in my indignation. I am humbled by my failure to be forgiving.

So first, let me be a Republican. If we truly are sincere about giving people second chances and helping them become a fuller part of society, should we not help them? Should not Republicans lead the way to redemption and making felons — me, us, — feel worthy of being full citizens again?

According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, "no state disenfranchises more of its citizens than Florida. The state imposes what for all practical purposes is a lifetime voting ban for people with past felony convictions."

On March 8, the Florida Supreme Court began the review of a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would restore civil rights for all nonviolent offenders who have completely paid their debt to society. If approved by the court, and if the more than 600,000 signatures are obtained, Florida voters may have their chance in November 2018 to join 38 other states that long ago moved forward on this issue.

Not every felon will want to vote. It is highly unlikely that the career criminal is eager to cast a ballot or do anything that resembles civic duty. But there are many felons who made a mistake, many years ago, who simply desire to rejoin society and make a difference with the rest of their lives.

I will be one of the volunteers supporting the amendment. I hope I can make a difference.

Mary McCarty was a Palm Beach County commissioner from 1990 to 2009. She currently provides counseling to individuals facing incarceration and their families. McCarty also travels the country speaking at conferences of public officials about her experiences.