TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Most Florida felons will regain voting and other civil rights more quickly after completing their sentences under changes approved Thursday by the governor and the state clemency board.
All but the most violent felons can now avoid waiting for a board hearing, a process that sometimes takes years.
Along with regaining the right to vote, felons can now more quickly serve on juries and get licensed for many occupations, a key concern of activists. The right to have a firearm still wouldn't be automatically restored.
Felon civil rights drew attention after the disputed 2000 presidential election, when many non-convicts were purged from voter rolls because of rampant errors in the state's prison database.
Florida was one of three U.S. states along with Kentucky and Virginia that require ex-felons to take action to restore their civil rights no matter how long they've been out of prison. Other states have waiting periods before restoration; most restore rights automatically when felons complete their sentence.
Under the change, which takes effect immediately, Florida officials will automatically begin the rights-restoration process for felons when they finish their sentences. People who previously completed sentences but are still awaiting restoration of their rights will still have to apply on their own because most are not tracked by the state after their release.
"I believe in simple human justice and that when somebody has paid their debt to society, it is paid in full," Crist said Thursday. "There's a time to move on, a time to give them an opportunity to have redemption, to have a chance to become productive citizens again."
The 3-1 vote Thursday was a compromise, continuing to require murderers and other violent felons to either go before the board for a hearing or at least undergo a review. Felons must also pay all court-ordered restitution to their victims before becoming eligible to get their rights back.
Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum cast the sole opposing vote, saying the change was welcoming the worst of the worst back into society too easily. Voting with Crist for the plan were Republican Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson and state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat.
A federal lawsuit challenged the ban on grounds that it disproportionately affected blacks, but the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument in 2005, noting Florida first banned felon voting in 1845 — before blacks were allowed to vote. The Supreme Court later let that decision stand.
Felon advocates generally applauded the change, while noting that rights restoration is still not completely automatic.
Gretchen Howard, president of the Florida Network of Victim Witness Services, said advocates for crime victims support the new rule because it "provides an outstanding incentive" for felons to make good on restitution orders.