Editorial: Change rules to restore voting rights for felons

Voters should support a constitutional amendment drive to ensure that ex-felons aren’t kept on the fringes long after they’ve served their sentences.
Voters should support a constitutional amendment drive to ensure that ex-felons aren’t kept on the fringes long after they’ve served their sentences.
Published Aug. 22, 2016

A historic election is approaching with Florida sure to play a pivotal role, yet 1.5 million Floridians are deliberately banned from voting. In a cynical move five years ago, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi led the charge to undo the automatic restoration of civil rights for some ex-felons. Now the insidious success of that policy is flourishing, with an entire subset of people unable to fully rejoin society and rebuild their lives. Scott will never see the right side of this issue, and voters should support a constitutional amendment drive to ensure that ex-felons aren't kept on the fringes long after they've served their sentences.

For four years, Florida was on the right track. In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican at the time, pushed to expedite the restoration process for nonviolent offenders who had completed their sentences and made restitution. Crist's move was overdue and reasonable. It didn't automatically restore the rights of those convicted of violent crimes such as murder and sexual assault, and it limited chronic offenders from having their rights restored repeatedly.

The result: more than 155,000 people convicted of nonviolent offenses regained their civil rights. But any criminal justice reform must be measured by its effect on recidivism, and here is where the reforms really succeeded. The reoffending rate of felons who had their rights was 11 percent in 2009 and 2010, down two-thirds from the eight years leading up to the change.

Yet Scott and Bondi undid it all, with the support of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. Now Florida is home to a quarter of the nation's 5.8 million disenfranchised ex-felons. And as Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported, it is one of just three states that permanently disenfranchise felons unless a clemency process restores their right to vote. That is not the list Florida should aspire to be on.

Those who apply for clemency have little hope, in policy or practice, of actually having their rights restored. They must wait at least five years after serving their sentence before they can even apply. They have to obtain court documents for every offense they have been convicted of in every jurisdiction. Their applications can be rejected without a reason given.

After all of that, anyone who can clear those hurdles has to travel to Tallahassee to plead his or her case at one of the Clemency Board's four yearly meetings. Even then, the chance of success is remote. In the four years since Scott put the tougher restrictions in place, only about 500 people per year have had their rights restored. That leaves a waiting list of more than 10,000 who have applied and hundreds of thousands more who haven't bothered. At the current pace, it would take 20 years to work through the existing waiting list.

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Erecting barriers to prevent felons from getting their lives back on track serves no public purpose. But it does serve a political one. Felons' rights have long been a political football, with Democrats seeing a pool of potential new supporters and Republicans finding little incentive to potentially bolster the ranks of the opposition. But that self-serving strategy has a human toll. Whites make up the largest share of Floridians who have lost their civil rights, while African-Americans as a whole are disproportionately affected, with an estimated 23 percent of voting-age blacks unable to vote because of a felony record. Politicians know all this, of course, so voters should know where they stand.

Putnam, who is likely to run for governor in 2018, says he now thinks there are ways to improve the process. Atwater says he's willing to revisit the issue. Even Bondi is open to reducing the wait, although she stubbornly refuses to support automatic restoration of rights for even nonviolent felons. Only Scott sees no reason to change this autocratic and callous process — and nothing can be changed without the governor's approval.

Florida gains nothing by keeping former felons from fully re-entering society and participating in democracy. They are less likely to commit new crimes when their path to employment and civic life is unobstructed. A ballot initiative that would make automatic restoration of civil rights a part of the state Constitution is gaining steam and signatures. It may be Floridians' best hope as long as the governor and Cabinet refuse to repair the system they broke.