Pubdate: Mon, 12 Jan 2004
Source: Florida Times-Union (FL)
Copyright: 2004 The Florida Times-Union
Author: Tonyaa Weathersbee, Times-Union columnist
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)


So Gov. Jeb Bush stopped by Lawtey Correctional Institution on
Christmas Eve, the place that now houses the nation's first
faith-based prison. He praised the prisoners, many of whom were black,
for signing up for the prison's self-improvement and religious courses
- -- the stuff that is supposed to help them see their way out of the
shadows of criminality and into the light of clean and lawful living.

Looks like he was just messing with their heads.

If Bush truly had faith that those prisoners were capable of turning
their lives around, he'd stop fighting the one thing that would bring
their rehabilitation full circle -- that one thing being the automatic
restoration of their right to vote once they've completed their sentences.

It seems that Bush isn't quite ready for something quite that radical
- -- even though the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seems to be.
Last month, it reversed a lower court decision and ordered a trial for
Florida felons seeking to restore their civil rights.

By a 2-1 vote, the appeals court partially reversed a summary judgment
in favor of Bush, the Cabinet and the state's election supervisors by
finding that there was evidence that the state's felony
disenfranchisement law was designed to discriminate against black
people and that the vestiges of that discrimination may still exist.

They're right.

Florida's 135-year-old felony disenfranchisement law is rooted in
racism. While disenfranchisement laws in Florida constitutions devised
before it became a state were primarily aimed at crimes like bribery
and perjury, the 1868 felony disenfranchisement law that was enacted
after Reconstruction was aimed at seeing to it that the ballot box
remained off-limits to newly freed slaves.

The law worked in tandem with the Black Codes, which virtually
criminalized almost every behavior of the former slaves. A black
person in Florida, for example, who had no job and no place to live --
a condition that was a given for the newly emancipated -- could be
rounded up and forced into labor for as long as 12 months.

So the law wasn't about punishing criminals. It was about keeping
former slaves on society's periphery.

Then came 1968, the year the felony disenfranchisement law was re-
enacted. And while none of the lawmakers who amended it bragged that
they were doing it to hurt black people -- as a constitutional
delegate did 100 years earlier -- they didn't have to.

The year 1968 was when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, racial
tensions were high, and segregationist Gov. George Wallace of Alabama
carried Florida in the presidential election. It was the year in which
white politicians who campaigned on "law and order," platforms -- code
for keeping black civil and social wrath in check -- ruled the day. So
while the intent to discriminate may not have been there, the
atmosphere certainly was.

Things are different today, though. Today, the drug war has landed far
too many people in prison for minor, non-violent offenses -- offenses
that cry for rehabilitation rather than punishment -- and a
disproportionate number of those ensnared in that war are black. More
than 10 percent of the state's black residents who are of voting age
are banned from voting because of felony convictions, while one in
five black males can't vote because of a felony conviction -- even
though they've fully served their sentence.

Besides that, Florida is one of the last holdouts on this issue. Its
insistence on keeping the law makes it one of only four remaining
states to bar first-time felons from voting unless they receive
clemency. The law also has no logical basis: No evidence exists to
show that stripping felons of the right to vote deters them from
committing further crimes. If anything, disenfranchisement serves as a
barrier against true rehabilitation by keeping felons outside of the
society instead of giving them a stake in it.

So as the prisoners at Lawtey work to turn their lives around through
adhering to the faith-based program that Bush extolled, it would be
nice if he showed his faith in people like them by abandoning his
battle to keep them shackled by a racist disenfranchisement law.

If he can't see his way to do that, then all of his praise for them
will ring hollow. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake