ORLANDO – When the nation heads to the polls in November 2012 to decide the presidential race, Florida is expected to be one of the key swing states that could decide the election.
At the same time, more than a million Florida residents won’t be allowed to go to the polls, said Joyce Hamilton-Henry.
And nationally, she added, they’re not alone.
“There are 5.3 million individuals who are disenfranchised nationally because they are convicted felons,” Hamilton-Henry said. “And one million of them are Floridians.”
Hamilton-Henry, the director of the Central Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said this is a clear form of voter suppression masquerading as a tough law and order stance.
“Voting is a fundamental right, and a civic duty,” she said. “We’re very concerned about the disenfranchisement of these individuals, and that includes people of color. Thirty percent of all black males are disenfranchised because of this.”
On Thursday, Hamilton-Henry was part of a panel group that talked about voting laws in Florida, and how they negatively impact low income and minority communities. Held at the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in South Orlando, the meeting was organized by state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, who is opposed to new rules imposed by Florida’s Executive Clemency Board that require convicted felons, even those convicted of non-violent offenses, to wait at least five years before they can get their civil rights restored.
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.
The Executive Clemency Board is made up of Florida’s four statewide officeholders: Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, all Republicans.
Earlier this year, following Scott’s lead, the board voted to toughen the process nonviolent felons need to go through to get full restoration of their civil rights. Under former Gov. Charlie Crist, the board had 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 their rights. For felons with a violent record, it’s a seven year wait.
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.”
But Thompson said the change appears aimed at minorities who could be expected to register to vote as Democrats once they get out of prison.
“We’re going to talk about citizens who have made a mistake in their lives and are convicted felons, but they have served their time and have paid their restitution, and they are still disenfranchised from voting,” she said. “The first thing our new governor and our new attorney general did was change that so it’s at the whim of the governor.”
Hamilton-Henry noted that the Executive Clemency Board meets four times a year, including later this month.
“What happened is in March they categorized felons into two categories, those who do have to appear before the clemency board, and those who do not,” Hamilton-Henry said. Those who do not, and have non-violent offenses, can file for restitution of their civil rights within five years. Those who have violent offenses and do have to appear before the board must wait seven years.
They’re also required to provide documents pertaining to every charge they got convicted of, and “must remain crime and conviction-free over those five years,” she said. “They have to pay all fines and restitution. It’s five years for those who do not have to appear, for non-violent offenses, and seven years for the more serious crimes.”
But she added that there is a period for processing those applications, and it can be as short as two years – or much longer if there’s a backlog in cases. So a convicted felon can wait as long as 13 years before they get their civil rights restored, she said.
“We feel that is a problem,” Hamilton-Henry said. “It is a conscious, conscious effort to disenfranchise people.”
Hamilton-Henry said she has some hope for a bill that’s been filed in Congress to establish uniform standards for all 50 states on the restoration of civil rights for felons.
“Right now, there is a patchwork of laws across the nation,” she said. “When you leave prison, there should be a chance to get your life back together, and voting is a fundamental right.”
Monica May, the moderator of the Town Hall meeting and host of the radio show Star 94.5, said the Florida regulations were far too strict, because people leaving prison need to be given an opportunity to succeed, and not be further stigmatized.
“We were promised our rights once we paid our debt to society,” she said.
May also noted that one of the people attending the Town Hall meeting was Vikki Hankins, the spokeswoman for the group Advocate4Justice, which lobbies on behalf of the rights of inmates and convicted felons. Hankins spent 18 years in prison on a drug charge, before being released in 2008. Today, she operates her own business, A4JPublishing, and is the author of the books “Trauma” and “Trauma II.”
Despite the fact that Hankins has turned her life around, May said, the state will not allow her to get her civil rights restored.
“This sister can’t vote, and this makes no sense,” May said.
Hankins agreed, noting that when she was released from federal prison three years ago, “I did apply to get my rights restored in 2008, and I wanted to know what the status was.”
She received a letter back from the Executive Clemency Board, and was told “I would not be eligible to have my rights restored until 2017,” Hankins said. “I have no understanding for a situation like this. They are saying, ‘We will not allow you to be a full citizen.’ 2017 is the date when I would be eligible to apply, and there is such a backlog that it would take me until 2023 to get my rights restored.”
Through Advocate4Justice, Hankins has launched an online petition that calls on Gov. Scott and the Executive Clemency Board to allow convicted felons to apply for restoration of their civil rights as soon as they get out of prison. People can sign the petition by logging on to Online Petition.
Hankins also said it’s important that civil rights activists and organizations like the ACLU get involved in this cause.
“I do appreciate what you’re doing with the ACLU,” she told Hamilton-Henry, who said Hankins’ story is, sadly, all too common.
“We have every right to be outraged,” Hamilton-Henry said, and she urged people to call the office of the Executive Clemency Board at 1-800-435-8286 and voice their opposition to the new rules.
“Let them know how angry we are, how outraged we are,” Hamilton-Henry said.
May added that only through being loud and persistent would they get the rules changed.
“This is not the last time you’re going to see our faces,” she said.
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