Thursday, June 19, 2008

New Florida Rules Return More Than 115,000 Ex-Offenders to Voting Rolls

New Florida Rules Return More Than 115,000 Ex-Offenders to Voting Rolls

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Gov. Charlie Crist announced on Tuesday that 115,232 Florida felons had regained their voting rights since new rules took effect last April, but 80 percent of the state's disenfranchised ex-offenders remain off the rolls.

The governor — a Republican who had initially pushed for a broader clemency program — said he was proud of the progress and hoped the number of those regaining voting rights would increase.

"Once somebody has truly paid their debt to society, we should recognize it, and we should honor it and we should welcome them back into society and give them that second chance," Mr. Crist told a crowd of law enforcement officials and advocates for prisoners' rights in Tallahassee.

"That could make an enormous difference in November," he said.

Indeed, the new figures arrive during a hotly contested presidential race — and as Florida has come under increased scrutiny for erecting barriers to voting.

Since 2000, Florida has passed some of the strictest voter registration rules in the country. It is also the most populous of three states (the others are Kentucky and Virginia) whose constitutions require withdrawal of voting rights from all felons.

So while ex-inmates in 47 states typically have their civil rights restored automatically, in Florida until April, most felons who finished prison and probation had to endure a lengthy review by state officials. About 7,000 each year were cleared to vote, to serve on juries and to get jobs that require state licenses, like a nurse or barber.

The newer rules create a three-tiered system for ex-convicts, based on the severity of their crimes. Those who have completed sentences and probation for the least violent, Level 1 offenses since April can have their rights restored without having to fill out paperwork, after the state confirms payment of restitution.

Of the 115,232 who have regained their rights, the vast majority are older cases that preceded the law. But most of the state's estimated 950,000 felons must request reinstatement. It is not clear how many more people are eligible.

"There is a large demand for this," said Muslima Lewis, director of the voting rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida. "And it is a lot higher this year with the election."

Ms. Lewis said Mr. Crist deserved credit for changing the rules. But, she said: "It does need to be seen in context. There is a lot more that needs to be done."

The issue of voting rights here has long been intertwined with race. The ban on voting by felons became part of the state Constitution in 1868, when many Southern states found ways to suppress black votes in the wake of the Civil War.

More recently, liberal groups have accused the state's Republican-controlled government of retaining the policy in an effort to keep blacks, who tend to vote Democratic, from registering.

Some Republicans have argued that felons of all races forfeit their rights when they commit crimes. Mr. Crist, in turn, has emphasized the Christian value of redemption.

And yet, for those who are looking to have their rights restored, voting is just part of the appeal.

Gregory L. James was released from jail in March after serving 12 years on a federal drug conspiracy conviction. A talkative 46-year-old who founded a nonprofit organization that mentors former prisoners, Mr. James said he hoped to have his rights restored over the next few years. He sees it as a way to finally move beyond prison.

"Being whole again means that I have my rights again," Mr. James said. "Without my rights, it's like I'm still doing time all over again."

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