S. David Mitchell, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri School of Law, said history could have been changed if Florida had allowed one particular group to vote: ex-felons.
“Think about Florida in the 2000 election,” Mitchell said. “Think of the voters disenfranchised from that vote. They would have had a direct say in who the next president was.”
Instead, Florida has joined several other states – including Kentucky, Virginia and Iowa – in establishing a 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.
In Florida, non-violent offenders just got handed a longer waiting period before they can get their civil rights restored. Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, sitting as Florida’s Executive Clemency Board, voted last week to toughen the process nonviolent felons need to go through to get their civil rights restored. It 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.
Mitchell said the change in policy is self-defeating since it will make it harder for ex-felons to get reintegrated into society. He also believes it’s a tragic mistake to take away any citizen’s right to vote.
“We’re talking about a right that was basically earned and won with blood and sweat and tears,” Mitchell said. “That’s why that one is so fundamentally important. If you undermine the rights of individuals in this context, you undermine the rights of society.”
Mitchell is a University of Missouri felon disenfranchisement law expert who believes Florida’s new policy sets up an unnecessary roadblock for people trying to become productive members of society.
Florida’s former governor, Charlie Crist, had instituted new rules in 2007 that allowed non-violent offenders to apply for the automatic restoration of their civil rights upon the completion of their prison sentence.
“The problem is that Florida has decided to add more time, even beyond the completion of the sentence,” Mitchell said. “The state ignores the issue that during the time period after a person has been released from prison, it’s more difficult to find gainful employment and housing. These new restrictions make it even more difficult for these people to integrate back into society.”
Mitchell said he’s particularly outraged that states would deny ex-felons the right to vote.
“This is not a privilege,” he said. “These are core elements of what it means to be a citizen of the United States.”
Inmates getting out of prison today face not just a weak and competitive job market, but also a reluctance on the part of employers to hire ex-convicts, Mitchell said. That adds heavily to the burden of funding a job and supporting themselves and their family.
“They are suffering a great deal,” he said. “After their time in prison, their skill set may not match what employers are seeking. And many of the rehabilitation programs focus on occupations that require them to get a license. You can use the fact that they’re felons as a basis not to grant someone a license.”
Making it more difficult for ex-felons to find employment simply makes it harder for them to be reintegrated into society, Mitchell said.
“There’s the issue of ex-offenders returning to prison,” he said. “In the first three years, often up to a third of individuals will re-offend because in the areas of employment and housing, we are barring them from certain opportunities. If you prevent these individuals from getting their civil rights, you push them toward an underground economy. You are not encouraging them to be law abiding when you deny them opportunity.”
Mitchell believes the restrictions are politically motivated. He noted that in 2007 when Gov. Crist changed the rules, over the next three years 154,000 felons who had completed their sentences had their rights restored, including the right to vote.
“It takes individuals whose political leanings may have been Democratic and forces them to wait five years to vote,” he said. “This change is for non-violent offenders. These are individuals who may have been convicted of drug crimes or property offenses. Restoring their right to vote is incredibly important.”
Every state sets its own rules on what rights ex-felons have once they’re out of prison, Mitchell noted.
“Each jurisdiction has its own experiment,” he said. “There are some where, once you finish your sentence, your rights are automatically restored. I think it should be addressed at the federal level. The problem is when you have states denying an individual’s right to vote, you have disenfranchised that individual. They can’t cast a ballot for someone in their local area, and they can’t vote on the federal level, either. If you have individuals being released from prison – and they are counted by the census when they’re in prison – when they return home, they cannot affect any policy change in their community. They have no voice to change or influence or impact what is going on in their lives going forward.”
Mitchell supports a federal bill called the Democracy Restoration Act, which would require states to allow ex-felons to vote in federal elections. But he knows that won’t solve everything.
“There is not really an advocacy group out there saying, ‘We want this for ex-offenders,’ ” he said. “These individuals never renounced their citizenship.”
Mitchell joined the University of Missouri School of Law faculty in 2006 following a two-year position at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Before heading to Colorado to teach and continue his research on felon disenfranchisement, he served as a law clerk for the Honorable Andre M. Davis of the U.S. District Court of Maryland.
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