Study shows ex-cons benefit from rights restoration

Tallahassee, FL – A study by the state of Florida shows ex-felons whose right to vote was automatically restored were less likely to commit new crimes. James Call reports, human rights advocates hope the findings will encourage Governor Rick Scott and the Cabinet to revisit a decision earlier this year which made it more difficult for ex-convicts to regain their civil rights.

The study by the Florida Parole Commission reviewed the cases of ex-felons released between April 2007 and March 2011. The results contrast sharply with a previous Corrections report that looked at the decade's first seven years. The Parole Commission reported on a period when procedures developed by then-Governor Charlie Crist automatically restored civil rights. It found ex-felons whose rights were restored were less likely to commit new crimes. The recidivism rate for the group was reduced by almost two thirds.

That gives advocates, like Mark Schlakman of the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, hope that Governor Rick Scott and the Cabinet will revisit a rule change made in March. At that time, Scott and the Cabinet sitting as the Clemency Board imposed a waiting period and other restrictions on Civil Rights Restoration.

"This governor appears to be one that is driven by benchmarks and evidence and business practices and if one has the opportunity to view what this report suggests, even if it is anecdotal that there may be a reduction of almost two-thirds in the the recidivism rate, that is remarkable."

Newly-elected Attorney General Pam Bondi led the effort to scrap the Crist-era initiative. When she proposed eliminating the automatic restoration of civil rights she said it was a public safety issue.

"I believe someone should have to ask to have their rights restored. I believe as a 20-year prosecutor that any felony is a serious crime and that as law abiding citizens we respect that."

The Clemency Board voted unanimously to change how and when an ex-felon regained the right to sit on a jury, serve in a public office and vote. Supporters say it is appropriate to ask an ex-felon to demonstrate over a period of time that they are committed to living a crime-free life. Florida is one of a handful of states with such a requirement.

Critics see politics at play. Florida's ban on granting rights is a relic from the post-Civil War days. Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho says by making it more difficult to regain the right to vote, the Clemency Board is engaging in partisan politics that echo the Jim Crow era.

"This time for political reasons. Because the concern is, we don't want those people voting they might not vote for us'. And these individuals are putting political gain ahead of the needs of the citizens of the state of Florida."

The rule change also called for a report on the status of individuals whose rights were restored under the Crist initiative. That report was released June 30th. It reviewed the cases of 30,672 individuals. About 11-percent, 34-hundred individuals re-offended and were put behind bars. That compares with the Department of Corrections report for the years 2001 to 2008 which found 33-percent of ex-felons re-offended. The methodology for the two reports is different and the DOC studied a longer time period. And the DOC takes in a much longer period of time. Still civil rights advocates say the Parole Commission's findings are consistent with other reports on integrating ex-felons into society.

The governor's office said it is aware of the Commission's report. In a written statement Attorney General Bondi said the report shows that thousands of felons whose civil rights had been restored reoffended, and this data clearly demonstrates the need for the longer waiting period. Schlakman said he thinks it would make sense for policy makers to consider the Commission's findings.

"To the extent that things like the restoration of civil rights appropriate post-release supervision can help to facilitate their successful reentry into society and therefore reduce recidivism rates and therefore reduce the cost borne by Florida taxpayers relating to their criminal justice system I think, practically speaking, it is to everyone's best interest to move this agenda forward."

Under current rules all ex-felons must wait at least five years before they can apply to get rights restored. Those who committed more serious crimes must wait seven years before a hearing on their request will be granted.