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Politics

Felons may regain voting rights

Crist seems to have the Cabinet votes to fulfill his most controversial campaign promise.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 3, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - After weeks of behind-the-scenes lobbying, Gov. Charlie Crist appears to have the two votes on the Cabinet he needs to restore civil rights to many ex-offenders.

Crist has called a meeting Thursday of the Board of Executive Clemency to consider changing a system that thrust Florida into the national spotlight as a state with some of the highest barriers to citizenship for felons who have served their time.

Crist promised in his campaign to support automatic restoration of civil rights without hearings for most felons who have "paid their debt to society" and completed sentences, including probation. Convicted sex offenders would not be included.

But the latest snag in the long-running controversy is a requirement that some felons literally pay their debts, in the form of full monetary restitution to victims, before they can regain the right to vote, serve on a jury or hold various professional licenses.

"It's not everything I would like," Crist said. "But it's a huge step in the right direction, to at least get the ball rolling."

Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union said it "defies common sense" to compel felons to pay restitution first, because the lack of civil rights prevents them from getting a job so they can pay restitution.

Simon cited a report by former Gov. Jeb Bush's Ex-Offender Task Force which found the lack of restoration of civil rights "a significant barrier to employment" in many cases.

"Don't pretend you're going to reintegrate ex-offenders into society if you're still creating barriers," Simon said.

Over the weekend, the ACLU launched an e-mail and letter-writing campaign in support of full restoration of civil rights when all "nonmonetary" terms of a felon's sentence are completed.

Under current law, felons must petition the clemency board to seek the restoration of their rights, but because the board meets only four times each year, the backlog of requests is enormous, about 35,000 people.

Reggie Garcia, a Tallahassee lawyer who specializes in clemency cases, said payment of restitution is not an issue in most clemency cases.

"I think the governor has shown tremendous good faith in bringing this forward," Garcia said.

It has proved to be one of Crist's most difficult political tasks.

Crist needs the votes of at least two of three Cabinet members, and Attorney General Bill McCollum strongly opposes automatic restoration of civil rights.

Spokesmen for the other two Cabinet members, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, said they support Crist's efforts to make restoration easier, and said payment of restitution should be a prerequisite.

The governor cited the case of Lisa Burford, who served 30 days in jail for stealing money from the bank where she once worked. A mother of four, she has not regained her nurse's license because of a felony, and still owes the bank $25,000.

"My heart bleeds for her," Crist said. "There's somebody who truly is trying to be productive and do the right thing. And we're going to say no to her?"

Crist told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board that the Clemency Board could waive the restitution requirement on a case-by-case basis.

"What we can do at clemency is wipe it away, forgive the debt," Crist said. "And that would be a possibility for her."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified April 2, 2007, 23:14:04]


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