ORLANDO – When someone gets out of prison, they may leave the correctional facility with a fierce determination to succeed at whatever they opt to do, and to ensure they never go back behind bars, said Vikki Hankins, adding that this is particularly true when convicted felons are given a job opportunity.
“Basically, they excel beyond citizens who have never committed crimes,” said Hankins. “They are more driven and they’re doing more than the average citizen is. But they’re convicted felons.”
What they need, she said, is to be given every opportunity to succeed now that they’ve paid their dues for the crime they committed, and that means not putting any restrictions on their ability to earn a living and become a fully productive member of society.
“When they have shown their probation officer they have transitioned back into society and will not commit crimes again, why is it there has to be an additional wait to see whether they will be a productive member of society?” Hankins said.
Hankins is the spokeswoman for Advocate4Justice, an organization founded by Garry L. Jones, a former corrections officer who worked for years in the federal prison system. Advocate4Justice is a non-profit group committed to a more humane treatment of inmates — with the goal of bringing justice back to the criminal justice system. The agency now has satellite offices in Orlando and Kinston, N.C.
Hankins, who runs the Orlando chapter, said Advocate4Justice has just launched a petition drive that urges Gov. Rick Scott to end the five-year waiting period before convicted felons can get their full civil rights restored.
“The thing I’m trying to accomplish is to get Governor Scott’s decision, which he reversed from what Governor (Charlie) Crist did, reversed again so convicted felons can get their voting rights back,” she said. “Their votes do count because of the presidential election in particular, but the local races as well.”
Florida is one of several states that has a lengthy waiting period before felons released from prison can have their civil rights restored, including the right to vote, serve on a jury, serve in the military, and obtain certain occupational licenses.
Earlier this year, Florida’s Executive Clemency Board followed the lead of Scott, and voted to toughen the process nonviolent felons need to go through to get full restoration of their civil rights. Under Gov. Crist, the board allowed non-violent felons to petition for the restoration of their civil rights as soon as they got out of prison. But when Scott took office, he successfully pushed for a change that requires nonviolent felons who have completed their sentence, finished probation and made full restitution to undergo a five-year waiting period, then begin an application process for restoration of rights.
When the change was made last March, Scott’s staff posted a notice on the governor’s web site noting “Governor Scott and members of the Cabinet voted unanimously today to tighten the rules of executive clemency, which will eliminate automatic restoration of rights for convicted felons.” The web site called it “tough new rules for convicted felons.”
Hankins said this is simply too long a waiting period for felons who are trying to become fully productive members of society and, having paid their debt to society, now want the same rights as everyone else. That’s why Advocate4Justice launched the online petition drive through its web site.
By logging on to Online Petition, anyone who supports the change can sign the petition, which reads: “My name is Vikki Hankins, I feel as though we are being used as pawns by the Governor of Florida, to detour possible democratic votes. When I was 19 years old I lost my mom tragically, by the time I turned 21, I was standing in front of a federal judge receiving a 23 years sentence for a nonviolent offense, hence my ineligibility to vote and/or restore my civil rights at this time. Since my release (2008) I’ve been homeless & jobless; the government seemed to think it was best I take a step back into prison in order to have food and shelter but I refused to give up despite the odds. Governor Scott and his cabinet seem to not care about this, it appears they care more about who gains or maintains control of the White House and the state of Florida, so he’s decided to silence our votes and keep us away from our civil rights for another decade!”
Hankins, who documented her experience in her autobiographical books “Trauma” and “Trauma II,” said the change appears to be more about politics than criminal justice or rehabilitation. Many of the convicted felons being released from the prisons, she said, are African-American, often a solid group of Democratic Party voters. Denying them the right to vote, she said, seems aimed at limiting the number of possible voters for Democrats or for President Barack Obama’s re-election.
It’s also just bad policy, Hankins said, because the state should be doing everything it can to help felons become productive members of society, and not limiting their abilities.
Restoring their civil rights immediately upon release from prison, she said, “gives us an opportunity to be a complete citizen again,” said Hankins, who still has years to wait before she can reapply for her civil rights, including the right to vote.
“When you’ve paid all your dues, you’ve earned the right to be a citizen 100 percent again, and to be a full citizen,” she said. “Why is it they have to wait?
“To some extent, I understand their reasoning,” Hankins added. “Society will possibly think that this person has not changed. I do understand why they would have that reasoning.”
What they need to understand, she said, is a parole board may already have made a determination that the inmate has changed and is ready to again become a productive member of society.
“The parole board will say they’re ready or they’re not,” she said. “This entity made a determination that this person is ready.”
The same could be true of the convicted felon’s probation officer, she added.
“You have two governmental agencies that made the decision that they have changed, and we are going to release them from probation or release them from prison,” she said. “They do that without the governor of Florida saying ‘Let me wait and see if they have changed.’ “
So far, Hankins said, the petition – which was launched in November – has been well received.
“The reaction I’ve gotten is people don’t agree with Governor Scott’s decision,” she said. “The people who have signed on believe there’s an ulterior motive and it’s not about waiting to see if they will commit more crimes.”
To learn more about Advocate4Justice, log on to .Advocate4Justice.com
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