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State could end clemency waiting periods

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MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA - JANUARY 06: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference about the opening of a COVID-19 vaccination site at the Hard Rock Stadium on January 06, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. The governor announced that the stadium's parking lot which offers COVID-19 tests will begin to offer COVID-19 vaccinations for residents 65 and older to drive up and get vaccinated. The vaccination site opened today for a trial run but it was not known when it will be open to the general public. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing sweeping changes to the state’s clemency process by doing away with a minimum five-year wait before felons can seek to have their civil rights, including the right to vote, restored.

DeSantis’ plan, released Tuesday, also would allow felons who have paid all court-ordered fines, fees and restitution related to their crimes to have their civil rights restored “automatically,” meaning they would not be required to go before the Board of Executive Clemency to have their cases considered.

But under the governor’s proposal, “returning citizens” who have outstanding legal financial obligations would be required to go through the clemency board --- made up of DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried --- before having their rights restored.

The clemency board is slated to consider DeSantis’ plan on Wednesday.

The Republican governor’s proposed changes come a decade after his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott, and former Attorney General Pam Bondi pushed through clemency rules in 2011 that imposed waiting periods of five or seven years, depending on the crimes involved, before felons could apply to have their civil rights restored.

DeSantis’ proposed modifications to the rules also come after the state won a major victory in a legal battle over how to carry out a constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, that restores voting rights to felons “after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole and probation.”

The plan laid out by DeSantis mirrors one offered last year by proponents of Amendment 4, which received more than 64 percent approval by voters in 2018.

The Republican-dominated Legislature in 2019 passed a law, signed by DeSantis, that requires felons to pay “legal financial obligations” associated with their crimes to be eligible to have their voting rights restored under the constitutional amendment.

Civil-rights groups challenged the law, equating it to an unconstitutional “poll tax.” A federal judge agreed, but an appeals court overturned his ruling and upheld the law.

DeSantis defended the state law, and called the constitutional amendment a “mistake.”

But Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, praised DeSantis’ proposed clemency revamp.

“We challenged the governor to be bold in his clemency reforms and he’s stepping up to the challenge,” Volz, whose group backed the constitutional amendment, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday evening.

Allowing felons to vote helps to reintegrate them into society, Volz said. People who have their civil rights restored are three times less likely to reoffend, according to a review by the Florida Parole Commission, Volz added.

Volz’s organization submitted proposed clemency reforms to DeSantis in February 2020. Its plan also would eliminate the five- and seven-year waiting periods and would create a streamlined process for felons eligible under Amendment 4 to have their voting rights restored without an application.

Critics of Florida’s clemency system have pointed to a labyrinthine process that can take years to navigate. When the clemency board last met in September, the Florida Commission on Offender Review had a backlog of 24,000 felons seeking restoration of rights with or without hearings.

Doing away with the waiting periods is viewed as a positive step for thousands of Floridians who have served their time behind bars. Restoration of civil rights means the person can vote, serve on a jury and run for public office, but it does not apply to the right to own a gun.

“The waiting period has tens of thousands of people waiting in line just to be heard, so we think getting rid of the duplicative process and the bureaucracy is a good thing for the taxpayers and for the people in the system,” Volz said.

Under DeSantis’ proposal, felons who have had their rights restored and commit another felony would have to wait seven years before applying to have their rights restored again.

DeSantis’ plan would require felons to apply to have their rights restored with or without a hearing, but would speed up the process by creating an “automatic” rights restoration for those who have paid all court-ordered financial obligations and can document that they have done so.

Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, has pushed DeSantis and other clemency board members to make it easier for felons to have their rights restored.

At the September meeting, Fried pointed out that the board had signed off on just 30 restoration-of-rights cases since DeSantis and the Cabinet members took office in 2019. DeSantis also had not acted on more than 800 pending applications for restoration of rights without hearings, Fried said at the time.

In addition to the rule changes, DeSantis and the clemency board on Wednesday are slated to reconsider a request for a pardon by Desmond Meade, the director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition who achieved international fame for his voting-rights efforts.

DeSantis rebuffed Meade’s request in September, saying he was concerned about a military court martial that took place three decades ago. The governor, whose approval is required for pardons or rights restoration, told Meade the panel would take his request for a pardon “under advisement.”

DeSantis’ proposed clemency modifications appear to return the process to the system that was in place before Scott, Bondi and the rest of the clemency board changed the rules in 2011, according to Mark Schlakman of Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

The state’s backlog of felons seeking to have their rights restored means that there will still be a waiting period for some people, even if the new rules are adopted, said Schlakman, an expert on the death penalty and restoration of rights.

“It’s unclear how many people that will implicate, but it’s a positive step in terms of trying to regularize this process,” Schlakman told the News Service.

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