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Does Florida law unfairly punish ex-offenders?

By Starla Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Apr 15, 2011 - 11:28:17 AM

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( - When an incarcerated person has paid a debt to society by serving jail or prison time, is released and ready to start a new life, many will have to wait a few years to be considered a real citizen.

At least, that is the new reality in Florida, where Governor Rick Scott, State Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Board of Executive Clemency changed rules about restoring voting rights to ex-offenders in the state. On March 16, the governor and board approved measures that will now require every ex-felon to wait five to seven years before being allowed to submit an application to the clemency board requesting eligibility to vote again.

In a March 9 news release the state attorney general said it is “appropriate” for the clemency board to restore voting rights to ex-offenders after they have demonstrated a commitment to living a crime-free life. “A reasonable waiting period gives us the opportunity to determine whether, in fact, the person has made that commitment,” said Atty. General Bondi.

Civil rights groups and prison advocacy organizations are outraged with the decision and say it will further disenfranchise Blacks and Latinos who make up a majority of incarcerated men and women. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said the decision would take away the fundamental rights of hundreds of thousands and harm communities.

“This change will impact hundreds of thousands of Floridians and is a weak attempt to rationalize an eagerness to deprive people of the fundamental right to vote,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Florida branches of the NAACP and the Advancement Project in a letter dated March 25 to all five members of Florida's Executive Clemency board wrote changes to voter registration must be first approved by the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia based on the Voting Rights Act.

“(The) State of Florida may not implement these new restorative requirements without first obtaining Section 5 preclearance,” said the letter. The coalition of civil rights groups also requested the clemency board inform them by April 8 of when the request for preclearance has been submitted.

With the new voter guidelines, ex-offenders convicted of non-violent crimes would be required to wait five years to apply and seven years for violent offenses. Prison reform advocates say immediate restoration of voting rights is a way of reintegrating ex-offenders back into society and has been shown to reduce recidivism. The new waiting period is inflicting further punishment on citizens that have paid their due to society, they argue.

“It is our expectation, and indeed the hope of thousands of Floridians of color who are disproportionately denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction, that Florida will abide by federal law and submit these changes for approval,” said Edward Hailes, Jr., managing director and general counsel of the Advancement Project.

In addition to Gov. Scott and Atty. General Bondi, the executive clemency board of Florida includes Jeff Atwater, Florida's chief financial officer, Adam Putnam, the commissioner of the Florida department of agriculture and consumer services and Kurt Browning, Florida secretary of state.