Florida's Clemency Process Is Complicated But It Hasn't Always Been

Dec 6, 2019

Gov. Ron DeSantis, second from left, presides over the Florida cabinet meeting consisting of Attorney General Ashley Moody, left, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, far right, Tuesday June 4, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Credit Steve Cannon / AP Photo

Florida’s clemency process has faced criticism for being harsh, laborious, and too slow. In 2018, a judge ruled it unconstitutional. But the state appealed the ruling and the court granted a stay – meaning the process hasn’t changed. Now, the only Democrat on the clemency board says things are getting worse.

Every year, tens of thousands of felons are released from prison. In most states, they’d have their voting rights back at that point. But in Florida, they must go through a clemency process. Reggie Garcia, a clemency lawyer in Tallahassee, explains the current process.

Florida Clemency Lawyer Reggie Garcia.
Credit Sascha Cordner / WFSU-FM

"If it’s a non-violent offense you have to wait five years from the conclusion of prison or probation before you can apply for clemency. If it’s one of the 35 enumerated more violent felonies or more serious felonies, that waiting period is seven years," describes Garcia.

But that’s just the start.

"So, here now we have a hard five and seven-year hard deadline waiting period before you can apply [for restoration of rights], and then ... many years before your case either gets a hearing or is ruled on," explained Garcia. "So it’s in effect a second waiting period while you’re waiting a decision."

Garcia estimates about 24,000 cases are pending before the clemency board, and about half of those are for restoration of civil rights.

But Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried says the current rules aren’t set in stone.

“Clemency is an executive function. So as of the day I was sworn in and the rest of the clemency board we have the power to make changes. And we have seen that under previous administrations— that those clemency rules were expanded and there was an automatic restoration of rights as soon as somebody was released," explained Fried.

Fried’s talking about the clemency process under former Governor and now Congressman Charlie Crist. He says he wanted to create an expedited process.

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist speaks to supporters at a campaign event, Monday, Nov. 3, 2014, in Orlando, Fla. Crist, a former Florida Republican governor, is running against Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Credit John Raoux / AP Photo

“The notion was that we wanted to make it a simple process for those who had not committed a violent crime or a sexual offense and it just seemed like the right thing to do," he explained.

Commissioner Fried says that the process was more streamlined and faster than today's.

She says the current system is worse than the process under former Governor Rick Scott, which a court found unconstitutional after plaintiffs sued the state. Garcia says opponents argued it gave too much power to one person.

"If the Governor says no, then any type of clemency is denied," explained Garcia. "If the governor says yes, he or she needs two other members of the Florida Cabinet meaning the Attorney General, the Commissioner of Agriculture or the Chief Financial Officer, two of those three members to join the governor in approving any type of clemency."

This March 9, 2018 file photo shows Florida Gov. Rick Scott talking to the media at the Florida Capital in Tallahassee, Fla. Attorney General Pam Bondi on Wednesday, April 4, 2018, appealed Judge Mark Walker's ruling to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and asked that his order to overhaul the system by April 26 be put on hold.
Credit Mark Wallheiser / AP Photo

Scott appealed the ruling that would’ve forced the process to change. The case remains open.

But Fried says what’s happened since then has made the process even worse.

"Unfortunately, under the current administration, we’ve only done 20 ... restoring of civil rights ... and it’s almost been a year," says Fried.

That number moved up to 24 after this month’s clemency meeting that saw more than 50 applicants.

Under Governor Rick Scott 3,368 people had their rights restored. Crist’s administration saw over 150,000 rights restored.