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Former felons barred from many jobs because of lost civil rights

Former felons barred from many jobs because of lost civil rights
By John Lantigua
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006

TALLAHASSEE — Melissa Clemmer of Hillsborough County wanted to be a nurse.

Florida, like most places in the United States, has a shortage of trained nurses.
But when Clemmer was 17, an honor student, she had joined in a high school prank that went very bad. She ended up hitting a man with a bottle of whiskey, pleading guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and burglary and serving 14 days in jail and three years’ probation.

She has never again had any trouble with the law, but last year, at age 25, when she tried to enroll at the University of South Florida to become a nurse, she was rejected.

"They said since I had a criminal record and had never gotten my civil rights back, I wouldn’t be able to get the license I needed to be a registered nurse," Clemmer says. "So they didn’t even let me enroll."

Clemmer says she then filed an Internet application to regain her rights, a new program offered by the state’s executive clemency board. But two months later, when she checked on the status of her application, she was told the board had never received it. She was instructed to file again, this time by mail, but was warned it would take 18 to 22 months to get any response at all, and it might be negative. She has since given up being a nurse.

"I’m thinking of studying political science because we have to do something about these laws," Clemmer says.

Clemmer isn’t alone. Gov.-elect Charlie Crist said on the campaign trail this fall that he also believes felons should regain their rights when they finish their sentences. That put the Republican at odds with his party, with Gov. Jeb Bush – and with Florida history.

Florida is one of only three states that still withholds the civil rights of all felons, despite the fact that they have completed their sentences and probations. The others are Virginia and Kentucky.

But Florida leads the nation by far in the number of people who are disenfranchised. According to Bush’s Ex-Offender Task Force, which issued a final report in November, the list now includes at least 700,000 Floridians, more than twice the number in any other state.

Many jobs off limits

Until the clemency board, made up of the governor and his Cabinet, grants them rights again, those individuals cannot vote. Regaining rights can take years. Civil rights leaders have demonstrated that fact, especially its effect on black Floridians.

But a more immediate concern for most former felons is that they can be barred from holding a long list of jobs because they have not regained their legal standing.

Those positions include licensed nurse, dental hygienist, physical therapist, licensed pest exterminator, bartender, paramedic, lottery vendor, athletic trainer, auctioneer and dozens more that require state-issued licenses.

Activists in the corrections field agree that some of those barriers are necessary, such as barring sexual offenders from schools.

But according to members of the governor’s panel, those practices do nothing to protect Florida’s citizens in many instances. They insist many of those measures simply make it harder for ex-cons to survive on the outside, leading to higher rates of recidivism, which costs Florida taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

"It makes no economic sense, and it contributes nothing to public safety," says Vicki Lopez Lukis, chairwoman of the task force and a former Lee County commissioner who once served 16 months in federal prison for mail fraud. "In fact, it does the opposite."

Randall Berg, an attorney with the Florida Justice Institute and a consultant to the task force, agrees that restoring former felon’s rights is important, and not only because it would allow them to vote. "Doing away with these laws is also a way to lower the crime rate and save money," he said.

The provisions in the Florida Constitution denying felons the vote and giving the governor control over clemency date to 1868 and the Reconstruction era. Similar laws were passed in many states at that time, particularly in the South.

"Clearly, they were adopted to keep newly freed slaves from voting," says Muslima Lewis, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, based in Miami. "It is a weird merging of two systems – criminal justice and the electoral system. Courts decide what your punishment should be, but this is an additional punishment levied outside the courts, by the executive branch. It’s unfair."

Rules punish reformed

The extensive restrictions on employment are more recent, the result of more than two decades of "get tough on crime" government in Florida. Over time, more occupations have been added to lists that restrict hiring.

The task force report recommends that existing restrictions on employment based on restoration of civil rights should be scrapped.

"Some of them are absurd," Lukis says. "If you’ve committed certain crimes, you can never be a Fish and Game warden, but you can still be a Highway Patrol officer. What sense does that make?"

The task force recommends that the restrictions be replaced with less draconian background checks. Under those rules, some felons would still be banned from holding certain positions because of their specific crimes. But in many other instances, a former felon would qualify for employment based on a history of good conduct, whether or not he has had his rights restored.

Jimmy Klinakis, 54, of Miami, a former drug addict and burglar who spent almost 12 years in prison, says he is a case in point. He has been clean and free for 16 years, has been operations manager of a Miami drug treatment program for 11 years, and for the past six he has participated in the governor’s Florida Drug Summit on substance-abuse policy, invited to the governor’s mansion every year. But he has been unable to obtain a professional license that would have enhanced his work.

"The current laws only hurt the people who want to go straight," Klinakis says. "The ones who come out but don’t go straight, they don’t care about voting and they don’t care about those jobs."

Klinakis’ civil rights were restored Nov. 9, after 14 years of trying, but he says many other reformed felons are waiting unnecessarily.

Slow process criticized

Klinakis and other rights activists stress that the current clemency process can’t be depended on to solve the problem.

From 1999 to 2004, Bush made moves meant to streamline that process. Clemency applications can now be made online or via telephone. The application was reduced from 12 pages to one. The demand that all fines be paid before rights are restored was dropped, although felons still must make restitution to victims.

Also, the new regulations allow some felons imprisoned for lesser offenses, and who have remained crime-free for five years after their release, to seek reinstatement of their rights by filing an application with the clemency board.

Individuals imprisoned for more serious offenses, including violent crimes, can file such applications after being not only crime-free but also arrest-free for 15 years after they are released. Some 300,000 people, many of whom previously had to seek hearings before the board, were expected to benefit from those measures.

But critics say those changes have done little to speed up the process, which they say is still slow, arbitrary and has left tens of thousands of former felons waiting for their cases to be resolved.

In total, during the past five years, 79.8 percent of all applicants have either been rejected or received no answer, according to the task force.

The state says those numbers reflect the enormous volume of felons who have applied for clemency since the contested 2000 presidential election, when the question of disenfranchised voters became a hot-button issue. State employees say they have limited staff and resources to deal with the problem.

One way to fix the system would be to amend the state constitution. But that would take the support of 60 percent of the electorate, which advocates believe would be difficult.

Corrections activists are pinning their hopes on Crist. His campaign proposal seemingly would solve both the voting and the employment issues. But if he is to achieve that change, he must persuade two of the three members of his Cabinet to go along with an executive order.

Incoming Attorney General Bill McCollum has taken a hard line: He opposes rights restoration for most felons. But Agriculture Secretary Charles Bronson and newly elected Chief Economic Officer Alex Sink have stated they could support such a move if it contained exemptions for certain crimes, such as homicide and sex offenses and selling drugs to minors.

At the clemency board hearings Thursday, Crist said he thought those exemptions would be reasonable.

With about 33,000 people scheduled to be released from state and federal prisons in Florida during the next year, the number of former felons without rights is expected to grow. According to the 2004-2005 fiscal year, the latest figures available, the counties that will receive the most such felons are Hillsborough, Broward, Miami-Dade, Orange, Duval, Pinellas, Polk, Volusia and Palm Beach.

Lewis, of the ACLU, says the ball is in Crist’s court. "If he does what he said he would do, this problem can be solved for a lot of people," he says.

As for Jimmy Klinakis, he hasn’t voted in a long time because he didn’t have his civil rights. But he has still kept an eye on politics.

"I’m a bit wary about putting a lot hopes on a campaign promise," says Klinakis, who runs a program to help former felons get back their rights. "But we hope he wasn’t just talking. We hope he was sincere."

Post researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.
Muslima Lewis
Senior Attorney and
Racial Justice Project Director
American Civil Liberties Union of Florida
4500 Biscayne Boulevard, Su. 340
Miami, FL 33137-3227
(786) 363-2700
(786) 363-1448 (fax)