About 1.7 million people in Florida cannot vote. Amendment 4 on the November ballot might change that.
Erwin Jones, an African-American man, was standing before the governor and Cabinet on June 14 when Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis asked him how many children he had and “how many different mothers to those children?”
Jones had served time for a felony at least five years before. He was in Tallahassee that day to get permission from Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, sitting as the Executive Clemency Board, to get back his civil rights – to vote, sit on a jury, or run for public office.
The arbitrary public questioning about Jones’ family status is an example, advocates say, of the deeply flawed process felons face when seeking official clemency to restore their civil rights in Florida.
Later in the meeting, Patronis put another man – William Reid Hicks – on the spot, asking him if he went to church. Hicks was there seeking permission from the Executive Clemency Board to own a firearm so he could go hunting again with his wife. He hesitated to discuss the details of his devotion.
“Not steady,” he told the state’s top elected officials.
Patronis — who is running for reelection in November — thanked Hicks for being honest.
Richard Greenberg, a Tallahassee attorney with 28 years of experience representing people seeking clemency, said he was surprised to hear Patronis question applicants about their church attendance.
“I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else ask that question. It seems totally irrelevant,” Greenberg said.
In most states, felons automatically get their right to vote and other civil rights restored after completing their sentences, parole, probation and restitution. But Florida is one of only four states where former felons lose the right to vote permanently and have only the option of the opaque clemency process to get their rights restored.
An estimated 1.7 million people cannot vote in Florida, and more than one in five of those people are African-American, according to data gathered by The Sentencing Project.
Criminal justice activists are hoping to change things on Nov. 6, when voters will consider Amendment 4 to the state Constitution. The amendment would automatically restore voting rights to certain felons who have fulfilled their debt to society. Some categories of felons would be excluded from automatic rights restoration: those who have committed homicide or a felony sexual offense. People convicted of those crimes would still have to take their case to the Governor and Cabinet members, who could restore voting rights on a case-by-case basis.
A group called Second Chances, headed by a felon who is frustrated by Florida’s arcane process, is campaigning for the amendment. The group says that passing Amendment 4 would put Florida in line with most states that use automatic restoration. It’s not fair, they say, for Florida to cling to such an arbitrary process that has existed for 150 years and disenfranchises millions of people.
Jessica Chiappone is Vice President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which provided the spark for the amendment. Chiappone has experienced Florida’s clemency process firsthand. She moved to Florida in 2007 from New York and applied to have her rights restored in 2008 so she could sit for the Florida bar.
“It just shows how unfair the system is,” Chiappone said. “With the Scott administration’s five-to-seven-year waiting period, you’re talking about people who have been crime-free for at least five to seven years, but sometimes at least 10 years, begging, essentially, to have their rights restored.”
Chiappone’s rights were reinstated in 2013.
“The process re-interrogates and continually punishes people for something they’ve already served their sentences for,” she said.
A nonprofit organization called Floridians for a Sensible Voting Rights Policy is fighting Amendment 4. Richard Harrison, the group’s executive director, argued in a Tampa Bay Times column that the yes-or-no approach to Amendment 4 over-simplifies the clemency process. It removes the ability, Harrison wrote, for anyone to judge the severity of a crime before a felon gets a voter registration card.
In a significant legal ruling last spring, a federal judge found Florida’s clemency process unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote that the state’s clemency process lacks standards and depends on the governor and cabinet’s “unfettered discretion” which results in “arbitrary and discriminatory vote-restoration.”
In a separate ruling, Walker noted that the governor and Cabinet’s decisions are “perhaps driven by unconstitutional factors — race, religion, gender, or viewpoint” and are “worse than flipping coins.” He did not explicitly say clemency board members are motivated by such factors but noted several instances in which a person’s religion or political leaning seemed to have had an impact. Walker’s ruling is not against the individual members of the clemency board, but against a process which he said stands on “mythical” standards.
The case was appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, and the court will hear oral arguments in late July.
The June hearing
During the June clemency hearing, besides asking Jones about the mothers of his children and whether two other applicants went to church, Patronis asked a third if he took his parents to dinner.
When felons get an application for clemency, the document explains that the Board will consider but not be limited to: the nature and severity of the applicant’s offense; any prior and subsequent criminal record, including traffic offenses; employment history; mental health, drug or alcohol issues; domestic violence issues; and letters submitted in support of, or in opposition to, the granting of executive clemency.
In his opening statement, Gov. Scott explained to the clemency applicants assembled in the Capitol that clemency is an act of mercy separate from the law. “Our clemency board makes judgements of conscience based upon the suitability of each applicant to be granted clemency,” the governor said.
Greenberg said the worst challenge for applicants in Florida’s clemency process under Gov. Scott is the length of time it takes for an application to go before the board.
“Some of my clients, their applications have been pending for 6 to 8 years. It’s unfortunate,” Greenberg said. “There doesn’t seem like there’s been allocation of sufficient resources to complete the investigations and get these matters heard.”
Since 2011, less than 3,000 people have received voting rights restoration under Scott’s administration compared to more than 154,000 citizens who got their voting rights restored during the four years that Gov. Charlie Crist was in office.
“I just don’t understand any connection between the right to vote and committing a crime,” Greenberg said. “If you go to court and you’re found guilty of a crime and you’re sentenced by a judge, the judge doesn’t (take away your right to vote). It’s done through, primarily, the executive branch. And there are many states where they don’t do that. And I don’t think Florida should do that either.”
Editor’s note 7/5
A previous version of this story identified civil rights as “the right to vote, sit on a jury, and own a firearm.” It’s been changed to say civil rights are “the right to vote, sit on a jury and run for public office.” Firearm authority is granted separately in the clemency process.