We voted to give felons voting rights – now the Legislature is involved, so advocates are at the Capitol, keeping watch

Neil Volz and Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition on March 12
Neil Volz and Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition

Hundreds of advocates for felon voting rights have been meeting with state lawmakers this week in the state Capitol.

They have three major concerns:

– First and foremost, they want the Legislature to fully implement Amendment 4, the state Constitutional Amendment that more than 64 percent of Floridians supported last November. The measure restored voting rights for about 1.4 million former felons (except those convicted of murder or sex offenses.) It went into effect on January 8, but Republican lawmakers have been talking ever since about enacting legislation to “clarify” the law.

“It was not confusing. We think the language speaks for itself,” says Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the nonpartisan organization that pushed for Amendment 4. Lawmakers are debating whether a former inmate is clear to register to vote as soon as he or she leaves prison, or whether their registration should be delayed if  they owe fines, fees, court costs or restitution. Amendment 4 says that felon “voting rights shall be restored upon completion of all terms of sentence.”

“We believe that expanding anything beyond (what the amendment says)  would be unconstitutional and restrict voting rights,” says Neil Volz, political director with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “We think we can do better than that, and we’re here to work with anyone and everyone to help make sure this is implemented in a constitutional way that allows people to fully engage in the political process.”

– Two, advocates for felon rights want lawmakers to work on removing the barriers ex-prisoners hit when they try to get a job. State Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, has filed one potential remedy: a bill that would allow felons better opportunities to get occupational licenses.

– Third, they are supporting a Brandes proposal to change the amount of theft considered a felony from what it is now, just $300, to $1,500. That would prevent petty criminals from living with the stigma of a felony for the rest of their lives, advocates say. Florida hasn’t changed its felony theft threshold since the 1980s and it is one of the lowest in the U.S.

While Amendment 4 restored voting rights for felons, it didn’t restore their full civil rights, which is why 55 people came before Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet – sitting as the Executive Board on Clemency – on Wednesday, looking to get a full pardon.

Jacksonville resident Vince Barlanti, 56, served 45 days in a Nassau County jail for purchasing what he said was just $12 worth of drugs back in the 1980’s. He said it took six years for him to initially get a chance to go to the Clemency Board – before he was told he had filed the wrong paperwork. He then hired a lawyer, and said he waited an additional 10 years until he got his opportunity on Wednesday. But he left dejected when he received a pardon without firearm authority.

“I’m seeing them give all these people full pardons who have done worse than I’ve done,” he said upon leaving the Cabinet room.

After the meeting, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the Clemency Board “will always be pushing for implementation of Amendment 4,” but said it was too soon.

“We’re going to have to wait, because if they (the Legislature) make some changes in the law, we wouldn’t want to duplicate or have to go back and make some changes,” she told reporters. “I’m very eager to move the process forward to make sure that we get (through) the backlog. That we go through the process as soon as possible. A lot of individuals have waited a long time to have their day here.”

Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

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