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    Group sues state over felons' voting rights

    The goal is an order forcing the Department of Corrections to comply with the law on restoring ex-felons' rights.

    By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2001


    Leroy Jones considers himself lucky.

    When he got out of prison, a counselor helped him through the cumbersome process of winning back the civil and voting rights he lost when he became a convicted felon. But at his inner-city Miami office, where he helps neighbors get food, clothing and jobs, Jones encounters hundreds of men who did not get the same assistance.

    "Over 60 percent of the men are convicted felons," said Jones, 38, head of Brothers of the Same Mind, a non-profit agency. "The process of getting their rights restored is so difficult. The Department of Corrections is supposed to help you."

    A class action lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges that the department barely lifts a finger to help felons get their rights back as they leave the state's supervision.

    That violates a Florida law that requires the department to provide offenders leaving the state system all the forms they need to apply for restoration of their civil rights, according to the suit. The suit was filed by the Florida Equal Rights Voting Project, a collaboration of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute.

    Florida law also says that, before a prisoner leaves the state's oversight, the department is to help him or her complete the forms and deliver the materials to the governor. The governor and Cabinet, acting as the Clemency Board, can restore ex-felons' civil rights, but the former felons first have to ask.

    Corrections Secretary Michael Moore "is not fully complying," according to the complaint.

    Through a spokeswoman, Moore refused to talk about this case because it involved a pending lawsuit.

    The plaintiffs, who include Florida's black legislative caucus and Brothers of the Same Mind, want a judge to order Moore to issue the proper forms to departing offenders and to help all those previously released in completing the forms and making sure their full applications reach the governor for consideration.

    "I think this is one of the most serious, if not the most serious, civil rights problems we have here in Florida," ACLU executive director Howard Simon said.

    Florida is one of nine states that prohibit all felons who have served their time from voting.

    Simon said the lawsuit is part of a coordinated state and federal campaign against Florida laws that ban felons from voting without getting their rights restored by the governor. In 1999, about 2,000 felons had their rights restored through the process among more than 100,000 prisoners who were released.

    "Lifetime punishment is just indefensible and needs to be changed," he said.

    Nancy Northup, lead counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said the action in state court is an important companion to the class action suit she filed in federal court on behalf of former felons denied the right to vote.

    "If we prevail in our case, the state would not be allowed to disenfranchise felons once they have finished their sentence," Northup said.

    "It is a shame that we have to resort to legal action. It is a shame that we have to file a lawsuit to enforce policies and laws that are already on the books in Florida," added state Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat and chairwoman of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators.

    Two bills aimed at restoring voting rights to felons are scheduled to be heard today by the House Committee on Rules, Ethics and Elections. The lead sponsor, state Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he thinks the bills will survive their first two committee stops, but he is unsure whether House leaders will allow the issue to face a full vote by that chamber.

    - Times staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.

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