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With little fanfare, the state of Florida took a major step forward Wednesday, and Gov. Ron DeSantis deserves credit for it.
DeSantis and the three elected Cabinet members wiped out Florida’s repressive requirement that former felons wait five years before applying for the restoration of their civil rights, something needed to serve on a jury or obtain a license for certain jobs. (Amendment 4, which voters approved overwhelmingly in a statewide election in 2018, applies only to the right to vote).
At the governor’s direction, the four officials streamlined the rules of executive clemency. As a result, felons who have served their sentences and paid their court-ordered debts can automatically get their civil rights restored without having to wait years for a sluggish and woefully understaffed bureaucracy to process their paperwork and force them to go to Tallahassee for hearings.
The action, at the start of a quarterly meeting of the Board of Executive Clemency, eliminates the waiting period begun during the Rick Scott era. Countless lives were damaged by that destructive 2011 policy, much of which was struck down as unconstitutional three years ago by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker.
Wednesday’s vote cracks open the door for an estimated hundreds of thousands of so-called returning citizens to regain their rights (the right to own a firearm is not included). Joining DeSantis in this welcome and long-overdue decision were his fellow Republicans, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and the Democratic agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried.
“Those who have had their voting rights restored under Amendment 4, it makes sense to also restore the other civil rights,” DeSantis said.
This change is good news, but it took much too long. Passage of Amendment 4 should have made the automatic restoration of civil rights a no-brainer more than two years ago. It has been more than a year since the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the advocacy group that led the way on Amendment 4, formally proposed reforms that closely mirror what the state approved Wednesday.
The coalition’s deputy director, Neil Volz, praised DeSantis and the Cabinet for the new rules. “We are incredibly grateful that we have elected leaders who are listening to returning citizens directly,” he said. Volz cited research by the Florida Commission on Offender Review, a state agency that processes clemency cases, that shows felons whose rights are restored are three times less likely to commit new crimes.
Left unsaid was how the state will educate convicted felons on this change and how to qualify (they still must fill out a form for restoration of their civil rights). Many of them live out of state, and many who live in-state would be frustrated by the layers of bureaucracy.
To emphasize his belief in restoring civil rights to ex-felons, DeSantis should ask the Legislature in the current session for money for an aggressive outreach program. People need to be shown how easily they can get their rights back.
Fried said the rules changes don’t go far enough and they meet only “the bare bones of Amendment 4.” We agree.
Fried, who is expected to run for governor against DeSantis next year, urged him and Cabinet members to add a provision that would allow poor felons to regain their civil rights by signing a sworn affidavit of poverty and inability to pay. It is estimated that 700,000 people may be unable to pay. But no one else shared Fried’s willingness to make civil rights equal for all, so the idea went nowhere.
The result is a system driven by money instead of fairness. A felon with the money to pay a fine gets his civil rights back, but a felon who can’t afford to pay remains a half-citizen. That’s wrong. Civil rights should never come with a price tag attached. Ability to pay was the central issue with Amendment 4. The state won a legal fight that ended with a federal court agreeing that felons seeking the right to vote must meet all terms of a sentence, including financial obligations.
Still, this is a good start, and DeSantis and Cabinet members did the right thing.
The new rules can be found online, and the details of the automatic restoration of civil rights can be found in Rule No. 9 on pages 13 and 14. To qualify, a felon must complete all terms of a sentence, including legal financial obligations; have no pending criminal charges or detainers; and be a U.S. citizen and legal resident. As with Amendment 4, anyone convicted of murder or a felony sex offense is ineligible.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Dan Sweeney, Steve Bousquet and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.