by Ben Silva, Gator Law ACLU
In 1988, Jessica Chiappone served time in a New York state prison on non-violent drug charges. While she was incarcerated, Jessica’s civil rights were taken away, but upon her release they were automatically restored. Jessica was able to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury in her native New York. However, when she moved to Florida, those rights were taken away again. As a result, Jessica was not allowed to take the Florida Bar Exam upon graduating from Florida Coastal School of Law. This created a devastating financial hardship for her and her family.
Jessica is just one of the over 1.5 million Floridians who have lost their civil rights. Florida currently bans all convicted felons from voting, holding public office and serving on juries for life. This ban applies even if an ex-offender was not convicted in Florida. This draconian ban disenfranchises 10 percent of the entire voting-age population in Florida, and disproportionately affects African Americans (23 percent of adult African-Americans in Florida have had their civil rights taken away).
Florida is one of only three states, including Iowa and Kentucky, which permanently disenfranchises ex-offenders. This was not always the case, and it does not have to be so in the future. Under current Florida law, the Governor has the power to change the rules regarding whose rights are taken away and how those rights can be restored. Under Charlie Christ and previous Democratic governors, non-violent offenders had their rights restored automatically once they had completed their sentence and conditions of release including probation and restitution. Over 150,000 people got their rights to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury restored automatically.
However, after being elected in 2011, Governor Rick Scott reinstituted a lifetime ban that previous Republican governors had endorsed. Ex-offenders can apply to have their rights restored, but the process is complicated and onerous. Low-level offenders may apply for Rights Restoration five years after completion of sentence and all conditions of release, while people convicted of more serious crimes must wait seven years. The burden is on the ex-offender to prove he or she has turned their life around and deserves to have these basic rights restored.
Gov. Scott and the Executive Clemency Board meet only four times a year to consider the hundreds of thousands of applications, and the enormous backlog means it can take years for ex-offenders to have their civil rights restored. Since taking office, Gov. Scott has granted Rights Restoration to less than 1,000 ex-offenders.
People like Jessica, who have served their time and paid their debt to society, deserve a second chance. Studies show that ex-offenders who have their civil rights restored are nearly 99 percent less likely to commit another crime. People who are engaged in their community and can participate in the voting process are less likely to be arrested again. It is easier for ex-offenders to get jobs if their rights have been restored, which make our communities safer, more stable places for everyone.
The time has come for this systematic disenfranchisement to stop.
Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a coalition of non-partisan advocacy and social justice organizations including the ACLU of Florida, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and Faith in Florida, are seeking to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot. This amendment would guarantee automatic restoration of civil rights for all non-violent offenders once they have completed their sentences and all conditions of release including probation and restitution. It would not apply to those convicted of felony sexual assault.
A complete text of the amendment and a downloadable petition can be found at www.floridansforafairdemocracy.com.
In order to get on the 2016 ballot, organizers must collect at least 685,000 signatures. The ACLU of Florida, Faith in Florida and other groups have been working hard collecting these signatures all year, but they still need your help.
On Saturday, Nov. 21, students from Gator Law ACLU, the student chapter of the ACLU of Florida, and the Restoration of Civil Rights Project will be conducting a petition drive during the tailgate party for the UF v. FAU football game. The petition drive, located around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and Plaza of the Americas, will last from 9 am to noon.
Volunteers can earn community service hours, and free lunches will be provided for volunteers by the AFL-CIO. If you are interested in volunteering please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Restoration of Civil Rights Project is a program operated by Professor Meshon Rawls as part of the University of Florida Virgil Hawkins Civil Clinics. The RCR Project conducts a series of monthly workshops around Gainesville in which law students help ex-offenders apply to have their civil rights restored. The next workshop will be Thursday, Dec. 3, from 5:30-7:00pm. at the Tower Road Branch Library at 3020 SW 75th St. D