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It's time to look at the debt never paid


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001

When would you say that an ex-convict has paid his "debt to society?"

When he completes his prison term, and all other conditions of his sentence?

When he has lived a certain length of time crime-free?

How about -- never?

How about, he should keep getting punished for the rest of his natural life, no matter what his original crime?

A reasonable person would say that it depends on the offense. Surely a man who steals a car at age 20, then never commits a crime again, is a lot different from a Ted Bundy.

A foolish young person caught with an illegal drug, who goes on to live a respectable life, surely is different from a narcotics kingpin.

Yet in one regard, our Florida law makes no distinction between the most awful felon, and the most (relatively speaking) minor:

If you have a felony record in Florida, you lose your right to vote.

For good.

Our state Constitution has said so since 1868, the era of Reconstruction.

It is possible to win back the right to vote. You can petition the governor and state Cabinet. However, that is not the easiest thing in the world. Not all know they can; of those, not many bother to try it; of those, not all are successful.

Florida is one of only nine states with a lifetime loss of voting rights. As a result, an ever-growing percentage of Floridians can't vote. The estimates range from 400,000 to 525,000, as high as one in 25 adults.

African-American men are more likely than whites and black women to be charged with and convicted of felonies. The estimates of the adult black male population that cannot vote range from 15 to 25 percent.

It is easy for the rest of us to say:

That's their own tough luck! They should have thought of that when they were out committing their crimes.

Our governor, Jeb Bush, expressed that sort of sentiment recently:

"Any person, black or white, who could not legally vote in the last election due to their status as a felon could have retained their right to vote by simply not committing a felony in the first place."

Ha, ha! Cleverly put! That settles that. Let's all us decent people now go down to the club and congratulate each other on our own virtue.

Except, deep from inside this comfy moral certitude, a tiny voice still asks ...

Does it really need to be for life?

Should the smallest-time offender from the smallest burg in Florida have to go to the Tallahassee bureaucracy, hat in hand, to have his fate decided personally by the governor and Cabinet of the nation's fourth-largest state?

We're not talking here about installing voting machines inside the state prisons. Neither does the restoration of voting rights need to be immediate, or ill-considered.

But there ought to be a middle ground -- say, the chance for ex-felons who have fulfilled their sentences to ask a local court to restore their vote.

The state Legislature will consider this issue when it convenes next month. A lot of energy will be focused on the issue of whether Florida's policy is racist, either intentionally or unintentionally.

There also will be fighting about the number of people affected, as if 400,000, or 200,000, or even 10,000, would be okay when 525,000 is not.

And beneath it all will be the fear by the Republican lawmakers that ex-felons would tend to vote for the Democrats. (Actually, I have plenty of arguments for why ex-cons should vote Republican, but let's save that for later.)

Let's not get sidetracked. The main issue is that Florida's lifetime loss of voting rights is just plain, 1860s-style mean, and clemency is cumbersome to win. Let's make it easier for those who have discharged their debt and proven themselves worthy to regain full citizenship.

Who knows? Having regained what the rest of us take for granted, they might even respect it enough to use it.

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