Felons rights restored
"This is about fundamental fairness," Gov. Crist says.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 6, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - Calling it "simple human justice," Gov. Charlie Crist and two Cabinet members voted Thursday to reverse decades of Florida history by automatically restoring some civil rights to tens of thousands of felons.
The change begins to dismantle a racially tinged obstacle to full citizenship in Florida that dates to the Jim Crow era after the Civil War.
Florida is one of five Southern states that required background investigations and hearings before most felons could again exercise four rights: to vote, serve on a jury, run for public office or apply for a professional license.
"Justice delayed is justice denied, and people are waiting," Crist said as he began a rare special meeting of the Board of Executive Clemency. "This is about fundamental fairness."
The most immediate effect of the change is to grant these civil rights to an estimated 30,000 men and women whose cases have been awaiting action, some of them for years. The restorations do not occur until they complete all terms of their sentences, including payment of restitution.
The list of automatically granted rights does not include gun ownership. Felons still must apply for that on a case-by-case basis.
Criminals convicted of murder or a sex offense will have to live 15 arrest-free years before seeking to regain their civil rights, and serious violent offenders will still have to petition the state for clemency. They can get their rights restored within 30 days if the governor and at least two Cabinet members approve.
State officials estimate that about 515,000 felons, convicted of less severe crimes, will now be eligible for faster restoration of their rights.
Joining Crist in the 3-1 vote were Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, a Republican, and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat.
Attorney General Bill McCollum, however, called the change "reckless and irresponsible." His criticism of Crist during the meeting appeared to open a rift between the state's two top Republicans.
"I'm just very upset about this," McCollum said. "I think we're making a grave mistake today."
Some civil rights advocates said the change, while long overdue, did not go far enough in helping former convicts return to a normal life. In particular, they objected to a provision in the new rule that requires felons to pay restitution before having their rights restored automatically, arguing that not having those rights makes it more difficult to earn the kind of wage that would allow them to make the payments.
"The compromise and the deal that's been cut doesn't measure up to bringing Florida into the 20th century, much less the 21st century," said Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute in Miami. "We've got to do more."
The American Civil Liberties Union said the new clemency rules "fall far short of expectations."
Others were elated.
"Florida has now entered the enlightened age," said Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg lawyer and Crist supporter.
As a candidate for governor last year, and in his first weeks in office, Crist demanded an easing of full citizenship barriers for felons, despite a poll showing most Floridians and law enforcement groups which supported his candidacy opposed the idea.
A tense, hourlong debate before the vote exposed deep philosophical differences between McCollum, who replaced Crist as attorney general in January, and the man who calls himself "the people's governor."
McCollum cited opposition from the Florida Sheriffs Association, Florida Police Chiefs Association and Fraternal Order of Police, among others.
He said Florida's high rate of recidivism, estimated as 50 percent within five years of release, will put people at risk: He described hardened criminals getting into homes with new jobs as exterminators or burglar alarm installers.
McCollum said that under the new rules, John Couey, the killer of Jessica Lunsford, could have had his civil rights restored before murdering the Homosassa girl.
Crist, who championed the "antimurder act" partly in response to the Lunsford case, bristled at McCollum's suggestion that it endangers people's lives to grant civil rights to some felons.
"I believe in the appropriate punishment. I'm Chain Gang Charlie," Crist said. "But when someone pays their debt to society, it is paid in full."
Speaking to reporters afterward, McCollum said: "I believe it's a very liberal thing we did today because what we're doing is, we're putting a lot of felons back into the voting booth, back into the jury room and back into your home."
Later, in a remark that required no explanation, Crist introduced his predecessor, Democrat Bob Butterworth, as "the greatest attorney general in the history of the state of Florida."
Butterworth said the new clemency policy "absolutely fights crime" by giving people a chance to get a job after leaving prison.
Civil rights advocates and African-American leaders praised Crist's role in pushing the issue to the center of the political agenda.
As word of the state's decision spread, some felons were overjoyed.
Grady Andrews, 38, of Clearwater had a clean record until he was convicted in 1999 on drug possession charges. But after he served his time, he said he was still being punished.
"I want to start to get back involved in the functioning of society," Andrews said. "I should get out to vote, and I can't vote."
Andrews owns a small amusement business and is studying to be a substance abuse counselor. He said voting is "one of those things that you take for granted and then, when they're gone, you realize what you're missing."
Charlene Mobsby, 42, of Clearwater has also felt the loss of her rights. Her father was a town council member in Rhode Island who instilled in her the importance of voting.
"I always voted, and I also worked at the polls, too," she said.
In 2001, she was sentenced to 18 months in prison for cocaine possession and attempted robbery, and she hasn't been able to enter a voting booth since.
"I've been turned down for many jobs because of my background," she added, saying she hopes that the state's new policy will make people look at former convicts differently.
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.
Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
38,000 petitions to have rights restored are pending before the Florida Parole Commission.
80 percent of those are eligible for the new program.
628,000 convicted felons are in the state's criminal database.
86 percent are men, 14 percent women.
62 percent are white, 38 percent black.
515,000 would be eligible for faster restoration of civil rights.
THE RIGHTS THAT CAN BE RESTORED:
- To vote
- To serve on a jury
- To run for and hold public office
- To hold a state-issued license
RIGHTS THAT CANNOT BE RESTORED:
- To own a firearm
- To request a full pardon
- To request a commutation of sentence
WHO'S NOT ELIGIBLE
A person convicted of any of the following crimes is not eligible for automatic restoration of civil rights:
- murder, attempted murder, attempted felony murder, manslaughter
- DUI manslaughter
- sexual battery, attempted sexual battery
- lewd or lascivious battery, molestation, conduct or exhibition, or upon or in the presence of an elderly or disabled person
- sexual performance by a child
- aggravated child abuse
- failure to register as sexual predator
- transmission of computer pornography
- buying or selling of minors
-kidnapping, attempted kidnapping, false imprisonment, luring or enticing a child
-aggravated battery, attempted aggravated battery
- armed robbery, attempted armed robbery, carjacking, attempted carjacking, home invasion, attempted home invasion
- poisoning of food or water
- abuse of a dead human body
- first-degree burglary, attempted first-degree burglary
- arson or attempted arson
- aggravated assault, aggravated stalking
- aggravated battery or aggravated assault on law enforcement officer
- first-degree trafficking in illegal substances
- aircraft piracy
- unlawful throwing, placing or discharging of destructive device or bomb
- facilitating terrorism
- habitual violent felony offender
- prison release reoffender
- sexual predator
- three-time violent felony offender
- violent career criminal
Source: Governor's Office