A vote last week by the governor and cabinet members over ex-felon’s rights appears to continue a “my way or the highway” approach leadership that has so far characterized the tenure of Florida’s newest governor, Rick Scott.
With little debate, the executive clemency board last week approved a series of changes to rules enacted four years ago under Gov. Charlie Crist that allowed offenders who had completed their sentences, probation, restitution and other requirements to regain their ability to vote, qualify for certain professional licenses and other rights afforded citizens.
The new rules, approved unanimously by the all-Republican board, will now require ex-offenders to apply to get their rights back after waiting a minimum of five years, making Florida again one of only a handful of states that does not automatically restore rights to offenders. Critics say the tighter restrictions harkened back to Jim Crow laws passed to keep blacks from voting following Reconstruction.
The vote came after nearly half hour of testimony from both sides of the issue. More telling, perhaps, is that it came less than an hour after copies of the proposed rule changes were released to members and the public, some of whom had driven hours to testify.
“Felons seeking the restoration of rights must show they desire and deserve clemency by applying only after they have shown they are willing to abide by the law,” Gov. Rick Scott said when introducing the proposal.
Board members had little time to review the changes. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican, said he received a copy of the proposal shortly before the meeting. Staff members scurried around minutes before and during the meeting to pass out copies of the proposed changes.
The inability to review the proposal before it was voted on raised concern from many of those who attended Wednesday’s meeting to speak.
“Keeping those plans and conversations out of the sunshine has essentially locked out the people most impacted as well as criminal justice experts who could provide input,” said Danielle Prendergast, ACLU Florida public policy director.
The changes were supported by the Florida Police Chiefs Association, the Florida Sheriff’s Association and other speakers representing state attorneys, who said offenders need time to prove themselves after completing their sentencing before they are allowed to completely rejoin society.
Backers of automatic restoration say many ex-offenders have trouble re-connecting with society because they cannot get professional licenses in some cases because of their criminal past. Representatives from the ACLU, the League of Women Voters and several state lawmakers urged the panel to postpone a vote on the proposal until after they had a chance to study it.
Scott told reporters after the meeting that it’s the clemency board’s responsibility to set parameters for inmates’ return to society. Scott said there was no reason to wait.
“Part of my job is when I get comfortable with a decision to go forward and start down the path,” Scott said.
E-mail Michael Peltier at firstname.lastname@example.org.