By Michael Pelter The News Service of Florida
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, FL — Hundreds of thousands of Florida ex-felons who have completed their sentences still can’t vote, a prohibition that is hindering their re-entry into society, a group of voting rights advocates said Tuesday as they urged Congress to step in.
Changes made last year in Florida have stopped restoration efforts for ex-felons who have served their prison sentences or completed probation, a shift in policy that came four years after former Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet voted to join most other states and automatically restore the rights of felons who had paid their debt to society.
Hampered in efforts to change state law, Mark Schlakman, a Democratic candidate for Congress and Walter McNeil, former Department of Corrections, secretary, on Tuesday urged Florida’s congressional delegation to push for federal law changes to require automatic restoration of civil rights for federal elections.
The practical result, said Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, would be that state election officials would follow suit because a dual registration system for state and federal elections would not work.
Last year, state lawmakers approved a measure that allows ex-felons to get vocational licenses and government work permits, even as they have to wait for other rights and privileges, such as voting. The bill, SB 146, was pushed by members of both parties, including Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Schlakman said a similar bipartisan effort should be mounted on the voting rights issue. He pointed to the Democracy Restoration Act, a federal, Democrat-backed initiative, as a template for how restoration could work.
“We have hundreds of thousands of people living out in society, having completed their sentences, who are unable to vote and cannot obtain the right to vote,” Schlakman said. .
The group pointed to a 2011 study by the Florida Parole Commission that indicated the recidivism rate for felons who had their rights restored in 2009 and 2010 was about 11 percent. That compared with an overall three-year recidivism rate of more than 33 percent between 2001 and 2008.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 Florida felons are released from prison or complete their probation every month.
The politically charged topic has been bandied about for years. In 2007, Crist and the Cabinet by a 3-1 vote ended a 140-year-old practice and agreed to immediately restore the rights of nonviolent offenders who had completed their sentences. The action also allowed most of those who committed violent offenses to immediately apply for board approval to regain their rights instead of having to wait five years.
In March 2011, Gov. Rick Scott and an all-Republican Cabinet overturned the previous vote. In place of automatic restoration, ex-felons would have to wait at least five years from time of their release before seeking the ability to vote.
Further, the request must be approved by the Executive Clemency Board, which is made up of the governor and Cabinet.
African-Americans have complained the move reduces voting in the Black community and lessens the community’s voice – because so many ex-felons are African-American.
“Felons seeking restoration of civil rights demonstrate they desire and deserve clemency only after they show they’re willing to abide by the law,” Scott said before the vote.
During the latest clemency meeting in late June, the panel restored the rights of 20 of 80 applicants. Last year the board restored rights to 78 individuals.
Florida now has one of the most restrictive processes for ex-felons to restore their right to vote. It is one of only a handful of states, most in the deep South, that do not allow felons to automatically regain their civil rights when they are released from prison.
“By saying you have to wait five years, what you’re saying is that person is going to have to crawl and scratch their way back into society,” McNeil said. “The research tells us … the more years you push that out, the less likely they are to succeed.”
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