Flordia AG thinks civil rights must be earned

Smita Ghosh 

One can imagine, in Florida, applying for admission to UF or to get into some of the State’s other hot spots. But “applying” for one’s civil rights is harder to envision.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the anxiety arising from an application process in which much more is at stake than your ability to “go gator.”

Pam Bondi, Florida’s newly elected Attorney General, announced in late February a plan that would require felons who have finished their sentences to “apply” for the restoration of their civil rights — including their right to vote, hold public office, apply for occupational licenses and sit on juries.

The application process would likely be an extension of the current procedure used to evaluate the rights of violent and sexual offenders, meaning that every individual would need to petition the Board of Clemency for their rights.  A related civil rights group notes that the process can be arduous, and should require submission a portfolio containing letters of recommendation and “additional items such as press clippings from a community event in which you were involved.”

Despite protest from civil rights groups, Bondi would ”not budge” from her position. In an earlier interview, Bondi explained that “the restoration of civil rights for any felon must be earned, it is not an entitlement.”  Currently, only two states, Kentucky and Virginia, require individuals who were convicted of a felony to petition the government for the restoration of their civil rights.  In most states, the rights of all or at least some types of offenders are automatically restored, sometimes after a waiting period.  In Maine and Vermont, individuals are not disenfranchised at all after conviction.  More here.

As of 2007, the state automatically restores the rights of felons convicted of nonviolent crimes after their sentence, while certain types of violent, “habitual” or sexual offenders must appear before the Clemency Board.  (See the current rules.) In 2004, when the civil rights restoration process was slightly more restrictive than it is now, but not nearly as restrictive as it would be in Bondi’s proposal, close to 950,000people in Florida were denied the right to vote due to past felony convictions.

Restrictions on the right to vote seem particularly disruptive in Florida, where several hundred votes made a huge impact on the 2000 election.  Additionally, this disruption occurs on racial lines, due to unequal administration of criminal penalties.   In 2001, 5% of the state’s voting age population and 10% of its African-American citizens were disenfranchised.  Citing this statistic, attorneys from the Brennan Center challenged felon disenfranchisement in 2001, alleging a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.  In 2005, the 11th Circuit found no violation and the Supreme Court denied cert.  Potential discriminatory disenfranchisement under Bondi’s new rule will likely be permissible as well.

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