Column: Too long to wait for my rights

Published June 7, 2013

Several million Americans are unable to vote because of state-based restrictions that prohibit people with felony convictions from voting even after they have completed their sentences. In Florida, more than a million people have been unable to regain their civil rights to vote, serve on a jury or hold public office.

I am one of them.

Almost 15 years ago, I was arrested for a drug-related felony. I was a first time nonviolent offender. I served seven months in prison, one year in a halfway house, and three years on supervised release. I made a mistake and did my time.

Several years later, like many mothers, I wanted to give my two young children opportunities I never had. I relocated from New York to Florida and applied to law school. My children suffered and endured with me through the rigorous demands placed upon law students and their families. Crossing the stage at graduation seemed like such a wonderful accomplishment for all of us.

But there was a catch.

While Florida does not ban people with felony convictions from being admitted to the Florida Bar per se, civil rights restoration is required to take the bar exam. I applied for restoration in early 2008 when Florida more routinely granted such restorations. However, due to a backlog of applications, limited staffing, and various eligibility requirements imposed by the governor and Cabinet sitting as the Clemency Board, even then the process could take several years without guarantee that one's rights would ever be restored. So I waited.

In August 2008, I began law school. 2009 came and went; 2010 and nothing. The 2008 applications had not been reached yet. Just before my graduation in 2011, the Clemency Board imposed some of the most restrictive criteria for rights restoration in the nation at the urging of Attorney General Pam Bondi. For perspective, during the administration of the previous governor more than 150,000 Floridians regained their civil rights. Now, almost two and a half years into the Scott administration, the Clemency Board has granted less than 500 applications for restoration.

As a result, my life, my ability to provide for my children, and my ability to pay back more than $200,000 I borrowed for law school were put on hold. These limitations affect my family and our future, all under the guise of public safety and justice.

Former felony offenders face many obstacles to successful re-entry into society. These obstacles not only affect the individual, but their families as well. In many cases, the barriers affect generations. In Florida, the challenge is exacerbated by the difficulty of regaining one's civil rights. Unfortunately, these barriers are part of a system that undermines the efforts of people to re-enter society and become productive members of their respective communities, increasing the likelihood of reoffending.

Florida is not alone. While states like New York automatically restore voting rights upon release from custody, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, and Kentucky require people with felony convictions to apply for civil rights upon release. Unlike Florida, those states are now moving in a different direction. Iowa eased its application process earlier this year.

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As of last week, Virginia will have automatic restoration for people with nonviolent felony convictions who have completed all of the terms of their sentence. Progress is being made, but not as quickly in Florida.

A few weeks ago, more than five years after I submitted my application, the Florida Parole Commission, the investigative arm of the Clemency Board, called to schedule an interview.

The parole examiner will develop a report that will be submitted for review and consideration by the parole commissioners who will make a favorable or unfavorable recommendation. I will eventually appear before Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet where after years of waiting, parenting, advocating, earning a law degree, working and paying taxes, they will decide if I am "good enough" to have my civil rights restored.

Jessica Chiappone of Boca Raton is the vice president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. She attended Nova Southeastern University's Shepard Broad Law School.