- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Florida clemency board yesterday voted to restore civil rights for most convicted felons, striking down a five-year wait before criminals could ask for the right to vote, run for political office, obtain professional licenses or perform jury duty.

“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,” said Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who called a special meeting of the Executive Clemency Board he chairs, which passed the rule on a 3-1 vote.

“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,” Mr. Crist said.

The rule change will affect nearly one million felons, but does not restore the right to own a gun.

The measure was opposed by law-enforcement officials, including the Florida Police Chiefs Association, which urged Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum to oppose the rule in a letter Monday. Mr. McCollum voted against it.

“The five-year waiting period is essential to ensure felons remain crime and arrest free,” the association said. “Without a five-year waiting period, there is no way to know if a felon will be a repeat offender and will commit an even more serious, violent crime.”

Nearly half of all felons — 45 percent — will recommit offenses within five years of their release from prison, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

Clemency board members Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, a Republican, and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, supported the new rule.

“We should provide Floridians with incentives, instead of roadblocks, to be responsible and to make the right decisions for themselves and their families,” Ms. Sink said.

The governor’s spokeswoman said Florida is one of the few remaining states that does not provide for automatic restoration of rights for most criminals.

After the parole commission confirms a felon has completed his or her sentence and probation, has paid all restitution and has no other cases pending, civil rights will be restored.

Rather than automatically restore rights to violent repeat offenders, Mr. McCollum urges that the number of clemency board meetings be increased from a quarterly basis to a monthly basis and wants to hire new employees to conduct more timely background checks.

“We should ensure fairness in the clemency process by ending the processing backlog,” Mr. McCollum said.

Criminals who qualify for automatic rights include those who have been convicted for offenses including child pornography, kidnapping and armed robbery. Serious offenders such as murderers and rapists are exempt and must still go through the hearing process, Mr. McCollum said.

People For the American Way (PFAW) backed the rule change, which it says expands voting rights.

“This is a major step forward for democracy in Florida,” said Reggie Mitchell, the group’s Florida legal counsel.

PFAW will coordinate with the clemency board staff to notify eligible felons when their rights are restored.

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