Automatic Restoration for Ex-Cons?

There are more than 100,000 Floridians stuck in a bureaucratic backlog... all convicted felons who've served their sentences but who aren't allowed by law to vote or get the tools they need to go back to work, all because they need the state to sign off. And now that the system could get even slower.

Here in Florida, just when you think you've done your time, a whole new sentence begins, one that's sidelined an estimated 900,000 ex-felons. They can't vote, can't serve on a jury, can't even get an occupational license to make a living.

“I deny restoration of civil rights.”

First they have to go through the clemency board, which includes Governor Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi. Thursday, she dropped a surprise announcement.

“I don't believe that any felony should have an automatic restoration of rights,” Bondi said. “I believe you should have to ask and there should be an appropriate waiting period.”

“When somebody has paid their debt to society, it is paid in full!”

Bondi's recommendation is in stark contrast to a rule spearheaded by former Governor Charlie Crist four years ago. It's supposed to let people convicted of non-violent felonies apply for and automatically have their rights restored.

Faced with a new clemency board that appears determined to tighten the rules, clearing the backlog just became a lot more difficult. That's why advocates want to take the issue all the way to the legislature and beyond.

A newly-filed bill would allow ex-cons to at least obtain occupational licenses without having to deal with the clemency process. Democratic sponsor Chris Smith calls it key to reducing crime, and he wants Bondi to rethink her stance.

“The recidivism rate goes down when people are re-integrated into society,” he said. “Costs to corrections go down when people are integrated back into society, so she may philosophically feel that way today, but as she studies it more and understands it more, I don't know if she's had to face this issue.”

For the attorney general, it's an issue of personal responsibility about making Florida's convicted felons earn back what they've lost, and once again the debate over felon rights is quickly becoming unshackled.

The clemency board convenes for a special meeting in two weeks. Bondi says she wants members to vote to eliminate the automatic restoration of felon rights. Meanwhile, the NAACP and the ACLU plan to protest.

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