Ex-felons’ voting rights could impact elections

With the margin of victory likely to be close, convicted felons could play a crucial role in deciding which presidential candidate bags Florida’s 27 electoral votes.

According to the Florida Parole Commission, 123,256 convicted felons have had their rights restored in the past 18 months since Gov. Charlie Crist’s decision to make it easier for ex-felons to regain their voting rights.

“We think we’ve done an incredible job,” said parole commission spokeswoman Jane Tillman. “If you look [at] a number of cases we have done this year, we did 14 times more restoration of right cases in fiscal 2007- 2008 than we have done in previous years.”

However, critics said that number might have been higher if not for bureaucratic issues and budget cuts.

“This is all smoke and mirrors.  Until they change the rules for Executive Clemency, the whole automatic restoration thing is a joke,” said attorney Randall Berg Jr., founder of the Florida Justice Institute, which was founded in l998 to handle rights restoration cases for ex-inmates and class action suits for low-income families.

Berg blames partisan politics. 

“The Republicans control the cabinet,” he said.  “Do you think they want one million new Democrats to vote?”

According to University of Minnesota sociologist Christopher Uggen, there were between 600,000 and one million disenfranchised felons in Florida in 2001. Many of them, who are mostly African-American and blue collared whites, tend to vote Democrat, Uggen said.

“We want every Floridian to vote, including votes from ex-inmates,” said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff.

In Florida, individuals who have been convicted of a felony cannot vote, serve on a jury or hold public office.  But responding to pressure to reform Jim Crow era rules, on April 5, 2007, Gov. Crist changed the process for rights restoration, allowing felons with non-violent criminal charges to have their rights restored immediately upon their release from jail. The offender must satisfy all monetary obligations and be free of any warrants or pending charges.

“I believe that government should explore every opportunity to ease the notification process and provide as much information about restoration of civil rights,” Crist said in a statement at the time. “The changes made today will allow ex-offenders to immediately register to vote and participate in the democratic process.”  

Since Crist’s announcement, the Parole Commission has processed over 200,000 restorations of civil rights cases and has granted 123,256 persons their rights back, according to Tillman. Prior to the change, the Parole Commission restored about 6,945 persons a year. During the 2007-2008, 12-month fiscal year, 70,531 felons reclaimed their civil rights, according to Parole Commission figures.

As part of the procedure, the Parole Commission sends a letter of notification to the individual’s last known address. Every two weeks, the commission electronically transmits a list of felons whose rights have been restored to the state Division of Elections, Tillman said.

The new rules mean that the FPC has been forced to do more work with a smaller staff, Tillman said.

“The staff has been cut by 20 percent, which is the largest cut of any criminal justice agency in the state,” she said. “Most of the cuts came from the clemency process.” 

And their work isn’t going to slow down, according to the department of corrections spokeswoman Joellyn Rackleff. There are 4,047 inmates being released monthly from Florida prisons – 45,569 annually, and she said that number is up from the 33,348 released in 2007.

“All we do is turn over the information we have on released inmates to the parole commission and then it’s out of our hands,” Rackleff said.

As of Oct. 29, 2008, there are 56,502 cases waiting for clemency, according to Tillman. At that rate it will take at least years to clear the backlog. Civil rights restoration activists said they are frustrated by the pace.

“Crist made the process faster, but it’s still slow.  They need to make the system truly automatic,” said attorney Reggie Mitchell, a member of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.  “We had to badger the Parole commission for a year just to get an inmate rights Web site up.”

That Web site is linked to the Florida Parole Commission’s homepage.  It is a basic search setup. An ex-inmate can enter their information and within seconds know if their rights had been restored.

With the prevailing “get tough on crime attitude,” inmates are serving longer prison sentences and leaving prison without many of their civil rights. Opponents of felon disenfranchisement have said the system isn’t just about preventing ex-felons to vote; it hinders their reintegration into society.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Felons can’t get a job, can’t support their family, and can’t pay taxes,” said Berg. “It makes it almost inevitable that they will commit crimes just to live.”