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Felons voting rights restored

Early Edition: Attorney General Bill McCollum was the only Cabinet member to vote against the change.

By Steve Bousquet, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published April 5, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet voted Thursday to dismantle Florida's Jim Crow-era barriers to voting and other civil rights for hundreds of thousands of convicted felons.

"I believe in simple, human justice," Crist said, speaking to a full house of visitors, most of them strongly in favor of the change.

Meeting as the Board of Executive Clemency, the officials created a new system to automatically grant civil rights to offenders who have completed all of the conditions of their sentences, including probation and payment of restitution to victims.

"When someone pays their debt to society, it is paid in full," Crist added, speaking slowly for emphasis. "There is a time to move on."

The vote was 3-1, with Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, a Republican, siding with Crist. The Republican governor had campaigned on a platform that included eliminating the barriers to civil rights for ex-felons.

Under the old rules, convicted felons were not allowed to vote, hold public office, sit on juries or hold certain state-issued professional licenses. The right to own a firearm is not included.

The change ends the current five-year waiting period in Florida for convicted felons to apply for the restoration of those rights if they have committed certain crimes.

State officials estimate that about 80 percent of the 515,000 ex-felons in the state in those categories will now be eligible for automatic restoration of their rights.

The lone opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum, argued fiercely against the change and cited opposition from the Florida Sheriffs Association, Florida Police Chiefs Association and Fraternal Order of Police, among others.

"I'm just very upset about this," McCollum said. "I think we're making a grave mistake today."

McCollum said Florida's high rate of recidivism, estimated as 50 percent within five years of release, will put Floridians at risk because hardened criminals will be able to get jobs as exterminators or burglar alarm installers.

In what could open a major political rift between two leading Republicans, McCollum called Crist's stand on the issue as "liberal" and "irresponsible."

The vote ends Florida's status as the largest of five states, all in the South, that required public hearings and background investigations before a convicted felon could regain civil rights.

Other states that do not allow automatic restoration of civil rights for ex-offenders are Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Kentucky, according to the governor's office.

Civil rights advocates and African-American political leaders who attended Thursday's meeting praised Crist for taking the lead on the issue.

"I'm elated that Florida has now entered the enlightened age," said Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg lawyer.

State Sen. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat, said of Crist: "Maybe every 50 years a governor or a man will come along with real conviction."



[Last modified April 5, 2007, 13:47:13]

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