Monday, December 6, 2004

State’s Rights

Florida once again lags behind the rest of the states in giving consideration to the restoration of basic civil rights to felons who have served their sentences.

Nine states since 1996 have eased or repealed felon voting bans, leaving Florida the largest among just seven states that continue to strip all felons of their civil rights for life, including the right to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury. The only way to get those rights back is through approval by the Florida Clemency Board, composed of Bush and the three members of the state Cabinet.

At this week’s board meeting in Tallahassee, Bush and the Cabinet have promised to make changes.

Proposals include adding more staff members to trim the backlog of civil rights applications and easing strict clemency restrictions so more people can regain rights quickly, specifically felons who have been crime-free for years.

“The governor remains committed to streamlining the clemency process,” said Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj.

But civil rights advocates fear that the proposals are cosmetic, meant to hush criticism, not help felons.

They want to see changes like those in Nevada, which now immediately restores rights to first-time, nonviolent offenders, or Delaware, which opted to restore rights after a five-year waiting period to all but the most violent felons.

Best yet, says Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, is Texas, which doesn’t bother with waiting periods or piecemeal restoration. The state simply restores rights to all felons who have served their time.

“Maybe I’ll go talk to [Jeb Bush] and I’ll take me a lobbyist like the president,” said Dutton, a businessman and lawyer who has served in the Texas Legislature for almost 20 years. He authored the law ending the voting ban, arguing that continued punishment of felons who had served their time was unfair.

“Why were we adding a sentence that a jury or judge did not give?” Dutton asked. “It was one of those things in the law that didn’t make sense to me, both from a civil rights standpoint and a moral standpoint.”

Jeb Bush defends Florida’s clemency system and the voting ban that has been part of the state Constitution for 136 years. He says the process of regaining rights is reasonable and fair and has become far more responsive to felons under his leadership.

Yet, the Clemency Board has rejected more than 200,000 applications since Bush became governor in 1999, the highest rejection rate in at least 16 years. Included are thousands of nonviolent offenders whose crimes never even warranted prison time, and felons whose convictions are years old.

“Gov. Bush claims to be spearheading reform, but the numbers are so huge, I’m not entirely convinced,” said Ryan King, with the nonprofit Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., which studies criminal justice. “Minor modifications aren’t going to make any significant contributions.”

[edit]

The answer lies in the state Constitution. It bars felons from voting and gives the governor and the Cabinet complete authority over who regains rights.

Any permanent change in Florida would require amending the Constitution, a long and often costly process.

It would mean putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot for a statewide vote — something that can happen only if three-fifths of the legislators in each chamber agree to it or if nearly a half million Floridians sign a petition backing it. Then, a majority of voters would have to approve the change.

So far, the Legislature has rejected proposals calling for a constitutional amendment, and civil rights groups have not yet collected enough signatures to put one on the ballot themselves.

But there is an easier option. The governor and the Cabinet could simply change the clemency rules. Former Florida governors opted to restore rights automatically to all felons, making the voting ban meaningless. [Miami Herald]

Methinks the real reason is that the Republican-dominated legislature and the governor would not like to suddenly have a half-million new voters who may – or may not – carry a grudge against the powers that be.