Alan Crotzer served more than 20 years in a Florida prison for a crime he didn’t commit. A few years ago, the state compensated him for that wrongful conviction. But there was something Crotzer wanted more than just a financial payout and an official state apology: he wanted to vote.
“Once released, they did give me a voter registration card because I asked for it. It was the first time I ever had one. But two months later they revoked it. And I was very hurt by that. I felt I was a second class citizen.”
Even though Crotzer was found to be innocent of the crime he went to prison for, he still had a record from run-ins with law enforcement from when he was younger. Eventually, he had his civil rights restored, but it was a process. And that process is now taking much longer than it used too.
In 2010 Republicans won all the state’s Cabinet races, from Governor to Agriculture Commissioner. The Cabinet also serves at the state clemency board, and one of the first actions it performed was to stop Florida’s automatic civil rights restoration process. Now, ex-felons must wait 5-7 years before they’re eligible to have their voting rights restored, and there’s no guarantee that will happen.
“One way people get elected is to stand up and be “tough on crime”. And certainly, we all want to be that. But we’ve done that for too long," said Former Department of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil.
McNeil is now president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He says Florida’s “tough on crime” approach is steering more people into the criminal justice system than keeping out of it. McNeil wants policy makers to look at studies like a 2011 report from the Florida Parole Commission. That study shows that re-entry rates for felons who had their rights restored in 2009 and 2010 was about 11 percent, compared with an overall re-entry rate of 33 percent.
“If you’re going to take 5-7 years in terms of trying to legitimize that person as a citizen, the research shows us that the chances of that person surviving under those circumstances, and the more years you push that out, the less likely that person is to achieve," McNeil said.
That’s why Florida State University professor and Congressional District 2 Candidate Mark Schlackman says he wants Congress to pass a bill that would let ex-felons vote in federal elections, while they wait on their state’s rights to be restored.
“Rather than trying to speculate on what the clemency board will do, or their motivation for doing or not doing something, we’re just looking at the facts and the practical application of the facts and the number of people adversely affected today.”
Schlackman, McNeil and Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho say Congress has the authority to allow ex-felons to vote at the federal level. They’re urging Florida’s Congressional delegation to support a bill that would make that happen, while they work to change minds at the state-level.
It’s now been six years since Al Crotzner was released from prison. He’s now a registered voter. And he wants others to have the same opportunity.
"I can ponder all day on why not to do the right thing. But why can’t we ponder on why do the right thing? Why won’t we do the right thing? When will we do the right thing? And that is to help people get the restoration of their rights. They completed their sentences, they are through with that. Why can’t they get this? Why do they have to be a second-class citizen?”
Florida is one of a handful of states that don’t have an automatic rights restoration process for felons once they are released.