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Bush dumps request form for clemency
After a court says the state must help felons fill out the form to have their rights restored, the governor decides it's not needed.
By TAMARA LUSH
Published July 23, 2004
A week after a court ordered the state to help felons fill out a form they need to restore their voting rights, Gov. Jeb Bush has responded.
He eliminated the form.
Now felons will have to wait for letters from state clemency officials telling them whether they need to apply. Some felons might get their rights automatically restored, but thousands will have to apply and wait for a hearing.
Bush wants the Department of Corrections to rely on an electronic notice from the Department of Corrections that an appeals court said last week was insufficient.
The decision drew criticism from some civil rights advocates.
"What the governor has decided to do is thumb his nose at the decision of the 1st District Court of Appeal," said Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute in Miami. "He's thrown up this complete bureaucratic hurdle to continually disenfranchise prisoners in the state of Florida."
Bush spokesman Jacob DiPietre said the change is intended to streamline the process.
"There's absolutely no reason to require the Department of Corrections to submit an electronic and paper application with the exact same information and at the exact same time to the Office of Executive Clemency," DiPietre said.
The appeals court last week rejected a lower court ruling that said an electronic notice from the state Department of Corrections to clemency officials was sufficient.
The appeals court said state prison officials must provide forms to felons and help fill them out.
Florida is one of seven states that do not automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences.
They must apply to the Board of Executive Clemency, comprising the governor and Cabinet.
But in the week since the ruling, Bush's lawyers decided such paperwork would be redundant.
"Requiring DOC to now prepare and submit a paper application (with the same information submitted electronically) before it is needed may strain personnel resources within the Office of Executive Clemency and Clemency Administration," Wendy Berger, the governor's assistant general counsel, wrote in a letter to the clemency office Wednesday. "As a result, the number of people who have their rights restored in a timely fashion may actually be reduced due to the additional processing and clemency investigations required."
The new process, DiPietre said, will work this way: When a felon is released from prison or probation, the Department of Corrections will electronically forward the felon's name to the Office of Executive Clemency.
There, workers will determine whether the felon qualifies for automatic restoration of rights.
Felons who committed less serious crimes will qualify.
If the person is eligible, they will receive a letter saying their rights have been restored.
Serious felonies, such as drug trafficking and violent crimes, require a hearing before the Clemency Board. In such cases, the Office of Executive Clemency will inform felons in writing to contact the office to start the process to restore their rights.
"This streamlines the process even further," said DiPietre.
But critics say felons are often transient and it's unlikely clemency officials will be able to reach them by mail for months or years after release.
DiPietre said most felons do not have to have hearings; civil rights advocates say 85 percent must have hearings.
A spokesman for the clemency office could not clarify the issue Thursday.
"This will ensure that fewer people will know about the process or hear about the process," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
Between 400,000 and 700,000 felons in Florida haven't had their voting rights restored.
Last year, 54,412 people were released from prison or fulfilled the terms of their parole. The issue of felon voting has became a hot issue after the 2000 election when some voters were wrongly identified by the state as felons and removed from the voting rolls. The state settled a lawsuit over that list, only to produce another flawed list this year that was recently abandoned.
Civil rights advocates have called on Bush to change the clemency rules to automatically restore voting rights to felons after serving their sentences. Bush said such changes would require amending the state Constitution.
The new policy allows felons to call, write or e-mail the clemency office to check their status.
It is unclear whether the clemency office will provide a toll-free number or additional staff to handle the added calls.
On Tuesday, a reporter who called the clemency office was routed to voice mail.
"Mailbox for clemency office is full," the message said. "Please try again later. Goodbye."