Florida Clemency Reform Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be, Says ACLU

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
April 5, 2007 12:00 am

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New Rules Fall Short of Comprehensive Solution to Voting Rights Crisis

TALLAHASSEE, FL – The American Civil Liberties Union expressed disappointment with today’s announcement by Governor Charlie Crist and the Board of Executive Clemency regarding Florida’s new rules for restoration of civil and voting rights. Although this first step toward comprehensive reform represents incremental progress, said the ACLU, the new rules fall far short of fixing Florida’s civil and voting rights crisis.

“This plan is a good first step but there is much work left to be done,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “There are hundreds of thousands of people in Florida – more than any other state – who have had their fundamental civil or voting rights taken away by the state based on a Civil War Reconstruction-era scheme to deprive as many people as possible of their right to vote. The Board of Executive Clemency’s plan does nothing to address the rights of these citizens. Florida is still dealing with the consequences of the Civil War and the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.”

The rules are crucially ambiguous, said the ACLU, especially as to whether individuals released years and decades ago still face the burden of collecting their records and applying for the restoration of civil and voting rights. The ACLU called for a paperless and immediate automatic restoration process for all ex-offenders who have completed the non-monetary terms of their sentence.

An additional amendment to the rules passed at today’s meeting appears to require those arrested or convicted a second time to wait an additional ten years to re-apply to have their rights restored. This is yet another barrier intended to disenfranchise as many people as possible, said the ACLU.

“The new rules are needlessly complex and will only confuse and deter potential applicants, and also confound corrections and elections officials. The burdens of paperwork and hearings will continue to impede voting,” said Laleh Ispahani, Senior Policy Counsel for the national ACLU. “Complicated schemes such as this one have proven unworkable in other states. One such state, Maryland, overhauled its formerly complex policy just last month.”

The vast majority of ex-offenders are the nearly one million citizens who have already been released, completed their sentences and are working to support their families in Florida. These disenfranchised citizens receive fewer reprieves under the new rules. The ACLU said an executive order issued by the governor with the support of at least two cabinet members could immediately and automatically restore rights to these citizens.

Reaching this large population and educating them on the new rules will be a daunting task. A system that would proactively benefit the majority of the disenfranchised should be automatic, immediate and paperless, said the ACLU, not require a tedious, bureaucratic paperwork process and waiting period to receive a certificate of restoration.

“The fact remains that the new rules are unnecessarily ambiguous and will lead to more confusion and a greater backlog of applications,” said Muslima Lewis, Director of the ACLU of Florida’s Racial Justice and Voting Rights Project, a Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) member organization. “Restitution remains an often insurmountable barrier that prevents ex-offenders that are law-abiding citizens from regaining their fundamental right to vote, and the ability to obtain dozens of occupational licenses.”

The new rules also continue to perpetuate payment of restitution as a precondition before rights can be restored. The ACLU argeed that restitution should be paid but said it should not be required in advance of rights restoration. Many people are unable to work because there are dozens of state-issued occupational licenses, such as nursing, that cannot be obtained until a person’s rights have been restored.

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