Advocates Seek Changes in Fla. Felon Rights System

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by
Associated Press

Advocates Seek Changes in Fla. Felon Rights System

by
Bill Kaczor

 

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -
Michelle Latimore fervently hopes Democrat Barack Obama is elected president, but she won't be voting for him.

That's
because the Miami woman - the wife of a poll worker and mother of two,
including a soldier who has served a tour in Iraq - once was convicted
of a felony for buying marijuana. As a result, she lost her civil
rights. She said she applied to get them restored two years ago, but
that's still pending.

"I can't vote, but I can pray. So that's
what I'll do," said Latimore, who works for a traffic signal and street
light company. "I can pray for him. I can pray that he wins."

She'll join thousands of former felons - estimates range from 300,000
to more than 900,000 - who'll be staying home on Election Day in
Florida because they haven't gotten their rights back. That's even
after a rules change last year aimed at speeding up Florida's
restoration process for those convicted of relatively minor crimes.

Many
other ex-convicts have had their rights restored but remain
unregistered because they don't know it. State officials say they've
lost track of them and cannot notify them. On the other hand, thousands
of ex-cons have been allowed to register and vote even though their
rights haven't been restored.

Those are symptoms of a broken
system, says Mark Schlakman, senior program director at Florida State
University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. Schlakman and
other civil rights advocates have been pushing for two fundamental
changes they say could fix the system, although it's too late to do
anything before the Nov. 4 election.

"Voting is a right of
citizenship; it is not a privilege," Schlakman said. "It's not a
question of coddling criminals. I don't view myself as an advocate for
ex-offenders. I'm trying to promote what's in the interests of justice
or democratic government."

Once offenders have completed their
sentences, including probation or parole, they should get their civil
rights back, Schlakman said. That includes the rights to vote, sit on a
jury and hold public office.

Florida is one of only 10 states that don't automatically restore civil rights.

Last
year's rule change made restoration quicker for some, but those who
have committed more serious crimes still must undergo investigations
and get approval from the governor and at least two of three Cabinet
members. The four sit together as the Board of Executive Clemency. The
process can take years and the board turns down thousands of
applications.

There's a laundry list of crimes that don't qualify
for the fast track. They include murder, rape, lewd conduct, robbery,
aggravated battery, aggravated assault, aggravated stalking,
first-degree trafficking in illegal drugs, arson, and first-degree
burglary.

One problem Schlakman and other advocates face is that
rights restoration is tied together with state licensing. While he
thinks civil rights like voting should be automatically restored, he
agrees the state can and should deny licenses to ex-felons for certain
jobs like mortgage broker or teacher where there is a physical or
fiscal danger. He thinks the issues should be separated.

"There's no public safety issue in terms of voting," Schlakman said.

His
second proposal is for the Clemency Board to revert to an automatic
rights restoration rule adopted in 1975 when Reubin Askew was governor.
In the 1990s the board, though, started excluding various crimes.

Gov.
Charlie Crist said separating rights restoration from licensing is
something he might do but he doesn't yet know enough about the Askew
rule to comment.

"My heart is to continue to do as much as we can
to give people a second chance who truly deserve it," Crist said. "Not
everybody feels that way."

One who doesn't is Attorney General
Bill McCollum, the lone Cabinet vote against last year's speed up. He's
also opposed to the Askew rule and separating civil rights from job
credentials.

"I don't believe in automatic restoration of civil
rights, including the right to vote or the right to be licensed ... for
the first five years," McCollum said.

He said that's because a
third of inmates released in Florida are arrested again within three
years and nearly half within five years.

"The right to vote is a
very precious right and when you're a convicted felon you ought to lose
it and not get it back unless you earn it," McCollum said.

The
clemency board relies on the Florida Parole Commission to investigate
rights restoration applications but it has a backlog of at least 60,000
cases, Schlakman said.

Of the first 112,000 former felons to have
their rights restored since the speed up rule was passed, at least
96,000, or about 85 percent, had not registered by the end of July,
according to an analysis by the Orlando Sentinel.

Another
analysis by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found about 30,000 former
felons had successfully registered to vote although their rights
haven't been restored.

Neither finding surprised Muslima Lewis, a
lawyer for the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union
who supports Schlakman's proposals.

"We have a very complicated, convoluted and costly system," Lewis said. "The entire process is very cumbersome."

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