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Punished for life

By Special to the NNPA from The Florida Courier | Last updated: Apr 7, 2014 - 11:21:15 AM

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Florida gov.’s rules on ex-offenders’ voting rights prevent 23 percent of voting-age Black Floridians from voting

TALLAHASSEE – Faith leaders and ex-felons marched to the Florida Capitol on March 26, calling for Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet to reverse a policy and restore the civil rights of people who have completely served their sentences after committing crimes.

The protesters wore gags to symbolize the loss by ex-offenders of the right to vote, sit on juries or hold public office, saying Florida’s disenfranchisement rate is the highest in the country – with more than 10 percent of voting-age residents unable to cast ballots, including 23 percent of Black Floridians.                                                        

Gathered on the Old Capitol steps, speakers said the lives of ex-felons are hard and that some give up and go back behind bars.

LaShanna Tyson, who served 13 years, said she watched other women get out of prison before her “and come right back, telling me ‘It’s easier for me in prison than it is out there.’ I couldn’t understand it, but now I do.”

Ms. Tyson added, “To our governor: We’ve all made mistakes, including you. But you know what? Right now I’m seeking that second chance, just like you.”                                                           

Tightened policies

Gov. Rick Scott
The clemency board, which consists of Gov. Scott and the Cabinet, voted in early 2011 to reverse a policy change four years earlier that allowed felons who had completed their sentences and all other requirements of the criminal-justice system to more easily gain the right to vote.

In 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist began the process by which non-violent offenders could regain their civil rights and others could have their cases reviewed. Mr. Crist issued new rules that streamlined the clemency process for ex-offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes, so long as they have paid any victim restitution and have no criminal charges pending against them.

Mr. Crist’s efforts to streamline the process divided ex-felons into three levels, making “Level 1’’ offenders eligible for automatic restoration of rights without a hearing before the state’s clemency board.                                                 

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, in August 2008 – just prior to the 2008 presidential election – nearly 300,000 people were Level 1 offenders who were convicted of crimes that permit them to regain their voting rights under Mr. Crist’s less restrictive rules.

But because of backlogs created by the still-cumbersome process, the majority of those potential voters were unable to cast a ballot in November 2008, despite an all-hands-on-deck effort by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), a coalition of more than 55 organizations.

Restoration too easy?

Gov. Scott’s administration reversed Mr. Crist’s changes and added a waiting period. The new rules require offenders to wait between five and seven years after completing their obligations, including restitution, to apply for their rights to be restored.

Supporters of changing the Crist-era policy said Florida had made it too easy for ex-felons to have their civil rights restored.

“Felons seeking the restoration of rights must show they desire and deserve clemency by applying only after they have shown they are willing to abide by the law,” Gov. Scott said in introducing the 2011 change.

In a 2008 story, the Florida Courier exploded the myth that Crist’s rules change meant that the rights restoration was either easy or short.

In 2008, the FRRC advised ex-felons that it was their responsibility to contact the Office of Executive Clemency if a certificate of restoration of civil rights was not received after one year from release.

American Civil Liberty Union’s Rights Restoration assistant Elton Edwards, who helped individuals navigate the maze to restore their voting privileges in 2008, agreed that automatic restoration was a misconception.

“They are leading people to believe they are actually working on the backlog of applications,” he told the Florida Courier.

“Some people have been out of custody for 10 to 30 years and haven’t received a certificate (of restoration of civil rights),” Mr. Edwards said. “For that to happen, it means contacting people, going into the database, informing them their rights are restored, and ‘here’s your certificate.’

That isn’t being done,” even after Mr. Crist streamlined the process, he said.

According to the FRCC, which helped organize the March 26 rally, an additional application processing time takes about six years under Gov. Scott’s new restrictions, making the total wait as much as 13 years. Even then, based on the current pattern, the group said in a statement, individuals have less than a one percent chance of having their civil rights restored.

The coalition said 1.5 million Floridians are affected. One speaker, Michael Orlando, 26, said he was still paying for mistakes he’d made at 20.

“There are people who don’t know better, because they’ve never been shown better,” he said.

“And for some people like myself, that light don’t click on until later on in life. But the state of Florida is saying, ‘It doesn’t matter when the light clicks on. If you made a mistake in your past, you must suffer for a lifetime.’”

Jessica Chiappone, who was busted at age 20 on a drug charge and served her time, came to the podium with her 1-year-old. Now 36, Ms. Chiappone said she applied for the restoration of her civil rights when she entered Nova Southeastern Law School, but didn’t get them until well after graduation. Now she’s struggling to support three boys on a legal assistant’s salary and can’t afford $3,000 to take the Bar exam.

“I know the common response is that I should have thought of these issues when I broke the law,” Ms. Chiappone said. “I was 20 years old. I obviously did not know what I was doing. I also did not know that when I took a plea, I’d be punished for the rest of my life.”

After their rally, the protesters went to the Cabinet room, where Gov. Scott was presiding over the clemency board.

They sat quietly with their gags on, but applauded when petitioner Anna Lowe told the governor, “Please don’t judge me for my past. Judge me for my future.”

Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida and Starla Vaughns Cherin of the Florida Courier contributed to this report.