A panel of Florida lawmakers began a discussion this week to consider automatically restoring the civil rights of ex-felons who committed nonviolent crimes.
Sen. Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale) and Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) are both carrying bills making it easier for ex-felons to have their civil rights restored to allow holding certain state licenses or voting.
Thurston says the current process is flawed. Today, ex-offenders have to go before Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet—as the Executive Clemency Board—and ask that their rights be restored.
“Under the previous administration’s attempt to reform restitution of rights, we had some 155,315 individuals who actually got their rights re-instated,” said Thurston. “Under the current administration, since 2011, we’ve only had 2,340. Basically what we’re saying is that it really shouldn’t be subjective to who’s in power in the Governor’s office.”
And, Rouson says the goal is simple:
“If we want people to be able to fully reintegrate themselves into society, after they’ve served their sentence, paid their debt, done their time, it’s vital that we do things that allow them to participate and express themselves in government in the governing progress as a part of being in community,” he said.
Both bills provide exceptions for automatic restoration, such as people convicted of rape or murder.
Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) says while he agrees with the creation of a more timely process for restoring civil rights, he’s against automatic restoration.
“I feel like that serious things have happened in the life of a person that’s been convicted of a felony, where they at least express that they would like to have these rights restored,” he said. “But, I think that part of the process needs to be more approachable and more responsive, and those are the kinds of things I would look forward to in dealing with that kind of issue.”
Baxley says the other thing he’d like to look into is the restoration of 2nd Amendment rights.
“Because how can you protect your family and others from harm and how can you do things like go hunting with your grandson and spend some time teaching him character and the proper use for a firearm—instead of violence toward people—if you never have those restored,” he asked.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) says he not only worries about the bills’ constitutionality, he believes this is an issue for the voters to decide.
“I think we need to talk about what the Constitution needs to say and put this before voters in terms having them revisit this matter at some point in time and leave it to the legislature to do the specifics,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) has carried similar bills for years to no avail. And, he says it’s time for Florida to do something.
“We are an outlier here in the state of Florida, an estimated 1.5 million people here can’t vote, for instance, because of some mistake they made 20 or 30 years ago,” said Clemens. “That represents somewhere about 30 percent of the people in the United States who can’t vote because of a felony history. So, that is a huge number.”
While members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee did not vote on the bills Monday, Panel Chairman Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee) says they may do something next year.
“This feedback is helpful,” he said. “I would like in the near future to have a bill with everyone’s input that could move through the legislature. So, this is the beginning of a conversation about this.”
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