02-19-2017  10:57 am      •     

Florida Gov. Rick Scott



TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet have ended the automatic restoration of voting and other civil rights to nonviolent felons once their sentences are up.

Sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency, they voted 4-0 on Wednesday to change the panel's rules and require at least a five-year waiting period before ex-convicts can apply to get their rights back.

``If you're convicted ... you lost those rights,'' Scott said at a news conference later in the day. ``There ought to be a process to get those rights back.''

Law enforcement officials and state prosecutors favored the change, saying people who have broken the law need a waiting period to prove themselves.

Civil rights advocates called the new rule a step backward, tantamount to double punishment.

The change is effective immediately and potentially affects anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 felons, experts said.

Previously, nonviolent felons' civil rights were restored automatically upon completion of their sentences and any probation. Those rights include voting, serving on a jury, holding public office and certain jobs requiring licenses, such as alarm system contractors and dental hygienists.

Florida last changed its felon rights process in 2007, under former Gov. Charlie Crist, allowing for automatic restoration. But ``automatic'' didn't mean instantly, as delays in administrative processing translated into ex-convicts waiting months or years to have their rights restored.

Immediately after the vote, the vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Florida State Conference said the panel had created a double standard.

``Now, you're sentenced by the court, and then you're sentenced by the Cabinet,'' said the NAACP's Dale Landry, referring to the newly mandated waiting period. He also complained that the text of the change wasn't available until the day the panel voted on it.

Even Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who sits on the panel, seemed initially confused about the rule changes, championed by Attorney General Pam Bondi. ``We had some ambiguity coming into the meeting about what it would look like,'' he said later.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the panel's haste was ``the opposite of open and thoughtful government.'' Simon and Landry did, however, meet with Bondi last week to discuss their concerns.

She agreed with their argument that occupational licenses should not be denied to former inmates who have completed sentences.

Such licenses, advocates argue, are key to earning a livelihood. Bills now are pending in the Legislature that would sever the link between the restoration process and professional licenses.

But prosecutors and other lawmen echoed Bondi's main concerns -- ex-convicts should have to wait to prove they're responsible enough to get their civil rights back. And they should have to ask.

``We believe that convicted felons should be required to demonstrate their desire to have their rights restored,'' said Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, representing the Florida Sheriffs Association.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, had asked the panel to delay a vote on the change. ``People deserve the opportunity to become first-class citizens,'' she said.

Simon said the rule change is immune from court challenge because it falls under the pardon power of the executive branch.

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