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Crist may restore rights to ex-felons

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published February 21, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Charlie Crist told the legislative black caucus Wednesday that he may issue an executive order single-handedly restoring civil rights to felons who have completed their sentences.

The announcement from the Republican governor drew applause from nearly two dozen lawmakers, all Democrats, known formally as the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators.

“My plan is to work with you to make sure we restore civil rights,” Crist told the group. “The important thing is that we get there. It’s going to be better than where we are now, I can tell you that.”

Under a Florida law in effect since shortly after the end of the Civil War, most ex-felons who leave prison must petition the state to regain the right to vote, serve on a jury, own a firearm or hold a professional license. The backlog is so large that cases may take years to resolve.

As a candidate last year, Crist advocated automatic restoration of civil rights for felons who complete the terms of their sentences, including probation and payment of restitution to victims. He said Wednesday he still may seek a policy change in the four-member Cabinet that he chairs, or through a change in state law. One Cabinet member, Attorney General Bill McCollum, opposes automatic restoration of civil rights for ex-felons.

The legislators were much more enthusiastic about an executive order -- an indication of their lack of confidence in a Republican-controlled Legislature that has never passed a bill to streamline the civil rights restoration system.
During his campaign last year, Crist aggressively sought black support. At times he met people who said they wanted to vote for him but couldn’t because they had run afoul of the law and had lost their right to vote.

For an hour, Crist listened as lawmakers presented a wish list of projects and proposed changes to health care, juvenile justice and education programs, including an end to grading schools based on student scores on FCAT tests.

Crist said teacher salaries should be based on factors other than the test, but he did not advocate dropping the FCAT.

The governor got a hero’s welcome from the group, which frequently was at odds with his predecessor, Jeb Bush.

“The first black governor of the state of Florida,” said Rep. Terry Fields, D-Jacksonville.

The black caucus met occasionally with Bush during his eight years in office, but they battled constantly over education, tax cuts, affirmative action and other issues.

Another change Wednesday is that Crist met lawmakers’ on their turf in the Senate Office Building, not in the governor’s office.

“People don’t have to come to me,” Crist said. “I think it’s important to reach out, and I’m going to keep doing it.”

Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, said a key difference is that Crist served in the Legislature.

“I think he feels comfortable being around us,” Hill said.

Exit polls taken on Election Day last November estimated that Crist received nearly 20 percent of the black vote in Florida.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

[Last modified February 21, 2007, 17:15:13]


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