HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Advocates Seek Changes In Fla Felon Rights System
Pubdate: Thu, 23 Oct 2008
Source: Florida Times-Union (FL)
Copyright: 2008 The Florida Times-Union
Author: Bill Kaczor, Associated Press Writer


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Michelle Latimore fervently hopes Democrat Barack
Obama is elected president, but she won't be voting for him.

That's because the Miami woman - the wife of a poll worker and mother
of two, including a soldier who has served a tour in Iraq - once was
convicted of a felony for buying marijuana. As a result, she lost her
civil rights. She said she applied to get them restored two years ago,
but that's still pending.

"I can't vote, but I can pray. So that's what I'll do," said Latimore,
who works for a traffic signal and street light company. "I can pray
for him. I can pray that he wins."

She'll join thousands of former felons - estimates range from 300,000
to more than 900,000 - who'll be staying home on Election Day in
Florida because they haven't gotten their rights back. That's even
after a rules change last year aimed at speeding up Florida's
restoration process for those convicted of relatively minor crimes.

Many other ex-convicts have had their rights restored but remain
unregistered because they don't know it. State officials say they've
lost track of them and cannot notify them. On the other hand,
thousands of ex-cons have been allowed to register and vote even
though their rights haven't been restored.

Those are symptoms of a broken system, says Mark Schlakman, senior
program director at Florida State University's Center for the
Advancement of Human Rights. Schlakman and other civil rights
advocates have been pushing for two fundamental changes they say could
fix the system, although it's too late to do anything before the Nov.
4 election.

"Voting is a right of citizenship; it is not a privilege," Schlakman
said. "It's not a question of coddling criminals. I don't view myself
as an advocate for ex-offenders. I'm trying to promote what's in the
interests of justice or democratic government."

Once offenders have completed their sentences, including probation or
parole, they should get their civil rights back, Schlakman said. That
includes the rights to vote, sit on a jury and hold public office.

Florida is one of only 10 states that don't automatically restore
civil rights.

Last year's rule change made restoration quicker for some, but those
who have committed more serious crimes still must undergo
investigations and get approval from the governor and at least two of
three Cabinet members. The four sit together as the Board of Executive
Clemency. The process can take years and the board turns down
thousands of applications.

There's a laundry list of crimes that don't qualify for the fast
track. They include murder, rape, lewd conduct, robbery, aggravated
battery, aggravated assault, aggravated stalking, first-degree
trafficking in illegal drugs, arson, and first-degree burglary.

One problem Schlakman and other advocates face is that rights
restoration is tied together with state licensing. While he thinks
civil rights like voting should be automatically restored, he agrees
the state can and should deny licenses to ex-felons for certain jobs
like mortgage broker or teacher where there is a physical or fiscal
danger. He thinks the issues should be separated.

"There's no public safety issue in terms of voting," Schlakman

His second proposal is for the Clemency Board to revert to an
automatic rights restoration rule adopted in 1975 when Reubin Askew
was governor. In the 1990s the board, though, started excluding
various crimes.

Gov. Charlie Crist said separating rights restoration from licensing
is something he might do but he doesn't yet know enough about the
Askew rule to comment.

"My heart is to continue to do as much as we can to give people a
second chance who truly deserve it," Crist said. "Not everybody feels
that way."

One who doesn't is Attorney General Bill McCollum, the lone Cabinet
vote against last year's speed up. He's also opposed to the Askew rule
and separating civil rights from job credentials.

"I don't believe in automatic restoration of civil rights, including
the right to vote or the right to be licensed ... for the first five
years," McCollum said.

He said that's because a third of inmates released in Florida are
arrested again within three years and nearly half within five years.

"The right to vote is a very precious right and when you're a
convicted felon you ought to lose it and not get it back unless you
earn it," McCollum said.

The clemency board relies on the Florida Parole Commission to
investigate rights restoration applications but it has a backlog of at
least 60,000 cases, Schlakman said.

Of the first 112,000 former felons to have their rights restored since
the speed up rule was passed, at least 96,000, or about 85 percent,
had not registered by the end of July, according to an analysis by the
Orlando Sentinel.

Another analysis by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found about 30,000
former felons had successfully registered to vote although their
rights haven't been restored.

Neither finding surprised Muslima Lewis, a lawyer for the Florida
chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union who supports Schlakman's

"We have a very complicated, convoluted and costly system," Lewis
said. "The entire process is very cumbersome."
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