A recent exchange between the governor and Cabinet and a felon seeking to have his civil rights restored underscores the arbitrary unfairness of Florida’s clemency system. A long waiting period, a ridiculous backlog of cases and elected officials who peruse limited details of people’s pasts to determine their futures add up to an unconstitutional quagmire. The remedy is on November’s ballot: Amendment 4, which would finally provide uniformity and clarity for ex-offenders who are trying to rebuild their lives.
Erwin Jones appeared in June before the Clemency Board, which is made up of Gov. Rick Scott and three Cabinet members: Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Jones is one of thousands of felons in Florida who have completed their sentences and probation, paid any restitution they owe and want their civil rights restored. Florida is one of only three states that, through its Constitution, permanently revokes the right to vote, serve on a jury and hold public office from anyone with a felony conviction. They must make a personal plea to the Clemency Board to get those rights back, and the governor must be on the prevailing side.
Jones’ hearing amounted to a cross-examination. Patronis wanted to know how many children Jones has and by how many different mothers, while seeking to find out if he was current in his child support payments. Scott asked for a retelling of Jones’ domestic violence crimes, dating to 2002. That led into a discussion with Bondi about the nature of domestic violence, and how many incidents don’t result in an arrest because victims recant their stories and return to their abusers. How is any of that relevant to whether Jones should be allowed to vote again?
During the same meeting, Patronis asked another felon seeking permission to own a gun so he could go hunting with his wife whether he went to church. How is that relevant?
The issue of rights restoration should not be a re-litigation of a person’s crimes or reflect the personal biases of the elected officials regarding the make-up of particular families — or their religious beliefs. The court system is where crimes are prosecuted and the corrections system is where they are punished. Florida, though, makes a felony a permanent barrier to full-fledged citizenship — and it does so at great public expense through a higher recidivism rate and increased burden on the courts. Amendment 4, which needs 60 percent voter approval to pass in November, would end that arbitrary scheme and automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed all the terms of their sentence. Those convicted of murder and felony sexual offenses are excluded and would still have to go through the clemency process.
There are about 1.2 million felons in Florida who would be given a clean slate with the passage of Amendment 4. The current system does not serve their interests — nor any broader public interest — because of its inefficiency and fundamental unfairness. Automatic restoration of the right to vote would bring Florida in line with the rest of the country and end the perpetual punishment of our fellow citizens who have served their time and paid their debts.