A new state rule in Florida calls for more than 115,000 former felons who complete their sentences to be given back their civil rights, including the right to vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, and obtain state and local licenses for certain types of work.
The rule by the state’s Board of Executive Clemency ends a policy that, until now, required a panel to act individually on every restoration of rights requests.
Florida Governor Charlie Crist – attending a two-day summit of state officials, lawmakers, community activists, prison ministers and others brainstorming ideas for keeping former inmates from returning to crime after they are freed – says the decision to restore civil rights to ex-felons is based on fairness and being a part of a democratic society.
"Once somebody has truly paid their debt to society, we should recognize it," explains Crist, a Republican who had initially pushed for a broader clemency program.
“We should welcome them back into society and give them that second chance,” he told a crowd of law enforcement officials and advocates for prisoners’ rights in Tallahassee. “Who doesn't deserve a second chance?"
At Crist's urging, the clemency board approved the rule change in April 2007, yet 80 percent of the state’s disenfranchised ex-offenders still remain off the rolls. State Corrections Secretary Jim McDonough says the agency will do what it can to find individuals through system records to tell them they now can have their rights restored quickly and easily.
Before the new rule took effect, Florida was among a handful of states that refused to automatically restore felons' rights after they completed their sentences.
According to the governor, the 115,000 former felons with restored rights account for more than half of all the state’s former felons. Under the old rule that required individual hearings and board action, only about 7,000 released felons had their rights restored annually.
The change doesn't include the right to have a gun, which still isn't restored automatically for people with felony convictions.
Crist says the state’s previous process for restoring rights was a vestige of a time better left in the past, and he doesn't want Florida to be among a minority of states still clinging to it.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," he says. "And people are waiting."
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