New Florida study tracks ex-felons after they won back voting rights

Jul 21, 2011

The following article was published in the Florida Current on July 21, 2011:

New Florida study tracks ex-felons after they won back voting rights

By Gary Fineout

A new state report shows that roughly 11 percent of ex-felons who won back the right to vote in the last two years committed new crimes or were placed back under state supervision.

That differs greatly from a study released by the Department of Corrections in 2010 that showed that a third of all criminals released from a state prison usually wind up back there within three years.

The report was ordered by Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Cabinet when they voted in March to make it harder for ex-cons to regain their civil rights, which not only includes voting but the right to sit on a jury and to get a state license. The move in March made nearly 60,000 ex-felons ineligible.

Attorney General Pam Bondi was the driving force behind the new policy. The former prosecutor argued that ex-felons should have to prove that they can stay out of trouble before they can get their rights restored.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called the report from Florida Parole Commission somewhat superficial. But he said it was important because it mirrors other studies that have shown criminals are less likely to commit new crimes if they are integrated back into society.

Simon said he tried to tell Bondi the same thing when he met with her earlier this year to discuss the new rules. He said this just proves that the new rules are more about making sure certain people – who could lean more Democratic in elections – do not win back the right to vote. Florida’s ban on granting rights to felons once they leave prison dates back to just after the Civil War.

“This is a government system that was designed to prevent the freed slaves from after the war from being able to work,” Simon said. “It continues to work as it was designed.”

Before then-Gov. Charlie Crist’s in 2007 pushed through a plan to ease some of the restrictions, Florida was only one of five Southern states that required convicted felons to apply and appear at a hearing before their civil rights could be restored.

Crist successfully won approval for state clemency rules that granted automatic restoration of rights for most former inmates, although those with more serious crimes such as murder and sexual battery needed to go before the governor and Cabinet in order to win back their rights. More than 154,000 ex-felons had their rights restored between 2007 and 2011.

But the decision to ease the rules drew fire from many other Republicans, including then-Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Under the new rules approved in March all ex-felons, even those convicted of non-violent offenses, must wait five years before they can apply to get their rights restored. Those who committed more serious crimes must wait seven years after they leave prison.

After winning approval of the rules Bondi did support a change in state law this year that made it easier for ex-felons to get state licenses. Scott in June signed the measure that would allow state agencies to reject license applications deemed critical for public safety.

The report put together by the Florida Parole Commission shows that 30,672 ex-felons had their civil rights restored during 2009 and 2010.  The study shows that 3,406 committed new offenses that either put them back in prison or required them to be supervised by the Department of Corrections.

The commission staff, however, did note that about 2 percent of ex-felons who had their rights restored during that two-year time period were not covered by the study because they were not in a state prison previously.

Bondi praised the report in a statement.

“I am pleased with the Parole Commission’s report, which clearly demonstrates their hard work to ensure a smooth and expeditious application process for the restoration of civil rights,” Bondi said.

The Parole Commission report also notes that the number of rights restoration fell from nearly 26,000 in 2009 to 5,700 in 2010. Jane Tillman, a spokeswoman for the commission, said the drop off was due to a variety of reasons including a cut in staff and the fact that initially under Crist there had been a big push to find and restore rights to as many ex-felons as possible.

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