St. Pete Time Editorial-response to the editor
This piece was printed in Monday’s St. Pete Time Editorial Section
I’ve enclosed my response to the editor.
Felons don’t merit automatic rights
By BILL MCCOLLUM Florida Attorney General
Published April 2, 2007
The campaign to automatically restore civil rights to nearly all felons upon release from prison, with no waiting period and no hearing to determine if those felons will go right back to a life of crime, is reckless and irresponsible. States have enacted laws to take away certain rights of those who commit crimes, reasoning that a person who breaks the law should not make the law.
As a matter of justice, respect for crime victims and public safety, Florida takes away the rights of convicted felons to vote, sit on a jury, or engage in a state-licensed occupation. Felons lose these rights unless Cabinet members, sitting as the Clemency Board, agree to restore them. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Florida’s law in 2005, finding it does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause or the Voting Rights Act. The federal court stated: "It is not racial discrimination that deprives felons, black or white, of their right to vote but their own decision to commit an act for which they assume the risks of detection and punishment" (Johnson vs. Bush).
Florida’s Constitution and rules provide a safety-conscious process to consider restoring a felon’s rights. Felons convicted of less serious crimes may have their rights restored without a hearing. Today, the majority of felons receive restoration of civil rights once their sentences are complete.
But to make sure they remain crime-free and arrest-free once their sentences are served, most felons convicted of serious crimes must wait at least five years before their rights may be restored without a hearing under the current clemency rules. Along with Florida, several other states have at least a waiting period to protect against repeat offenders which, although not common, is a responsible process. The proposal soon coming before the Clemency Board would regrettably eliminate this critical waiting period for all but a few.
The high repeat offender rate in Florida is the central issue in this debate. The revolving door effect of restoring felons’ rights only then to revoke them due to a new criminal offense would diminish the integrity of our democratic government and the rule of law. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, nearly 40 percent of offenders commit another crime within three years of release and 45 percent do so within five years; for those under 18 the rate skyrockets to 73 percent. Furthermore, a 2003 Department of Justice report found more than 70 percent of arrestees tested positive for drugs, and studies show that drug traffickers live lives of violence.
The proposal to automatically restore civil rights when leaving prison would restore rights without providing a reasonable period of time to determine if felons are truly rehabilitated or still leading a life of crime. It would include felons who committed heinous offenses such as child pornography, kidnapping and luring a child, armed robbery, carjacking and home invasion, aggravated stalking, aggravated assault, and even battery on a police officer. Furthermore, the proposal would include drug traffickers who are some of society’s most dangerous felons often entangled in gang violence and, worst of all, would include offenders who continually plague our society – habitual violent career criminals.
This proposal to automatically restore civil rights to felons would give repeat offenders the same vote at the ballot box as law-abiding citizens. Felons convicted of major crimes would be eligible to sit on a jury to carry out our system of justice. Violent criminals would be able to acquire a state-licensed job, whether as a household pest exterminator, residential building contractor or alarm system installer, allowing felons to regularly access people’s homes.
Rather than automatically restore rights to violent repeat offenders, we should ensure fairness in the clemency process by ending the processing backlog. As I previously proposed, this can be accomplished by increasing the number of Clemency Board meetings from a quarterly to a monthly basis to hear more cases and by providing the Parole Commission with additional employees out of Cabinet agencies to conduct timely background checks. I support requiring a decision on the restoration of a felon’s rights within one year of eligibility. By adopting these changes, Florida can be proud in having a fair process that protects law-abiding citizens.
Bill McCollum is Florida attorney general.
In reading Attorney General McCollum’s thoughts regarding the automatic restoration of civil rights I was somewhat taken aback by some of his assumptions. Especially when he declares that states have the right to deny civil rights because they "who break the laws should not make the law."
Unfortunately the deprivation of civil rights finds it’s foundation in the old "Jim Crow” laws designed by states to keep its black citizens from voting. That these laws unfairly impact the black community to this day should come as no surprise. That these laws are found predominantly in the old south should give pause to people of good conscience.
In a country where so few value the right to vote enough to participate in elections you would think we’d want as many people vote as possible. Perhaps Mr. McCollum would like to let us know what is so dangerous about ex-offenders voting on class size, their local mayor or a Penny for Pinellas.
More than 85% of those in custody are there for non-violent crimes. If they test positive for drugs it would point to a need for treatment not incarceration. Studies show that ex-offenders that have jobs & are allowed to obtain treatment and training they are less likely to re-offend.
I would also like to point out that truly dangerous criminals have long sentences that include probation and would not be eligible to regain their rights and that some of the drug traffickers serving long sentences have never sold a single drug but are caught up in the web of our nation’s draconian drug laws.
Every felony charge should not be a life sentence and scare tactics should not prevent people of good conscience from giving those who have served their sentence the right to participate fully in our society and most importantly returning their right to vote.