April 5, 2007, marked a victory for civil-rights activists. Gov. Charlie Crist and his cabinet voted to streamline the process that restores felons' civil rights after they've paid their debt to society. No longer would nearly 1 million ex-cons — a disproportionate number of whom were black — be barred from voting, serving on juries or obtaining professional state licenses.
"If we believe people have paid their debt to society, then that debt should be considered paid in full, and their civil rights should in fact be restored," Crist said in a statement. "By granting ex-offenders the opportunity to participate in the democratic process, we restore their ability to be gainfully employed, as well as their dignity."
Under the new rules, nonviolent ex-felons can have their rights restored without a hearing. Sex offenders and murderers, meanwhile, must still have their applications heard on a case-by-case basis by the Florida Board of Executive Clemency.
Two years later, on March 11, Crist sent out a press release declaring, in essence, "mission accomplished."
"Before the rule change," Crist declared, "only about 7,000 individuals had their civil rights restored each year. In the nearly two years since we changed the process, more than 69,000 people each year have regained their civil rights."
But are the new rules working? A new report by the ACLU of Florida suggests they're not. Although 138,000 people have had their rights restored, many more have not. For that, the report fixes blame on a process it deems slow, unfair and hindered by elections officials who simply don't understand the law. "As a result," the report says, "hundreds of thousands of Floridians, including perhaps tens of thousands of citizens with nonviolent offenses who are eligible for civil rights restoration … remain dis`en`franchised."
"The fact of the matter is there's not just one hurdle `to rights restoration`, there are numerous hurdles at every step of the process," says report author Muslima Lewis, the ACLU of Florida's director of racial justice and voting rights projects. For starters, ex-cons must pay back any restitution they owe before they get their rights back. Since many employers won't hire felons and it's hard to amass savings in prison, this can prove problematic. Also, Lewis says that in practice the "automatic" restoration for nonviolent felons is anything but.
"There is no automatic civil rights restoration in Florida," she says. "There is this impression that there is. That is confusing to the people who are impacted." Every case has to be reviewed for eligibility, she says — an often convoluted bureaucratic ordeal. Moreover, many ex-cons never receive their certificates of eligibility.
Perhaps most troubling is the report's assertion that county supervisors of elections have no idea what the rules are. According to an ACLU survey of officials in all 67 counties, half didn't know that prisoners on probation or parole weren't allowed to vote, or that paying restitution was a precondition to rights restoration. Forty percent said, incorrectly, that ex-cons have to produce their certificates of civil-rights restoration to register. Fewer than half knew whether or not those with convictions in other states could register, and "not a single election official correctly stated that individuals with out-of-state convictions can apply for rights restoration in Florida if they reside in Florida and have not had their rights restored in their state of conviction," the report says.
To the ACLU, that indicates there's a lack of information filtering from the state to local election officials, and down to former felons trying to register to vote. "It's a complicated, difficult-to-understand process," Lewis says. Which is why it needs an overhaul.
"The ultimate goal is to have a constitutional amendment to `restore ex-cons' rights`," Lewis continues. "In the immediate term, you can have the rules changed to have `rights` restored upon release from `state` supervision."
Crist's office did not respond to an inquiry about the ACLU's email@example.com