TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - For the past decade, felons in Florida have had to wait at least five years after being released from prison before becoming eligible to have their civil rights restored.
But on Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet, acting as the Board of Executive Clemency, did away with the waiting periods, opening the door for thousands of so-called "returning citizens" to have their rights restored and possibly wiping out a backlog of thousands of other cases awaiting review.
The revamped clemency rules also establish an expedited process for felons who have paid all of the legal financial obligations related to their crimes.
That "automatic process" is "going to streamline everything," Attorney General Ashley Moody said.
"I think this is going to be a huge advancement toward reducing that backlog," she added. "I think this is a great first step, and I think our numbers will ultimately show that.
The plan adopted by the board --- made up of DeSantis, Moody, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis --- will "automatically" restore civil rights to felons who have paid all court-ordered fines, fees and restitution related to their crimes. They will have to apply to begin the process of rights restoration, but they will not be required to go before the Board of Executive Clemency to have their cases considered.
Under the new rules, indigent felons with outstanding legal financial obligations will be able to apply to have their civil rights --- the right to vote, serve on a jury and run for public office --- restored but will have to go before the clemency board, which has the authority to waive court-ordered fees and fines.
DeSantis said he proposed the changes in part to address a 2018 constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, that was designed to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. Republican lawmakers in 2019 passed a measure, 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.
"Those who have had their voting rights restored under Amendment 4, it makes sense to also restore the other civil rights," DeSantis said. "Now, felons who have not completed all terms of the sentence or who have not received a judicial modification or conversion of sentence sufficient to satisfy Amendment 4 may not receive the automatic restoration of civil rights without a hearing. They may continue to apply for a restoration of civil rights with a hearing, under the current clemency process."
Tallahassee lawyer Richard Greenberg, who told the panel that he has represented clients in the clemency process for three decades, thanked the board for the changes.
"I have a client who filed an application in 2008. His application has not yet been reviewed," Greenberg said, adding that other clients have waited five to 10 years.
But Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, said the revamped clemency rules don’t go far enough to help indigent felons, who make up the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of felons in Florida who have served their time behind bars.
Since taking office in 2019, Fried has pushed DeSantis and other clemency board members to make it easier for felons to have their rights restored. She wants the board to allow felons to sign sworn affidavits attesting that they are indigent to be eligible for "automatic" rights restoration.
The changes approved Wednesday "unfortunately, meets only the bare bones of Amendment 4," said Fried, who is eying a run against DeSantis next year.
"What about the vast majority who can’t afford the fines, fees, court costs and money that is owed to the government?" she added.
But Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, hailed the clemency changes. His organization, which backed Amendment 4, proposed similar changes to the state’s rights-restoration process a year ago.
"We know that, according to the Florida Parole Commission, when people with felony convictions have their civil rights restored, they are three times less likely to reoffend. We think that is not only good for returning citizens, but we know that is good for the entire state," Volz, who was pardoned by the board in September, told the panel Wednesday.
Wednesday’s action reversed five- and seven-year waiting periods imposed by the clemency board when it was made up of former Gov. Rick Scott, former Attorney General Pam Bondi, former Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and former Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. The changes were adopted shortly after the four Republicans took office in 2011.
The waiting periods made Florida’s clemency process one of the nation’s most stringent. They were, in part, the motivation behind the push for Amendment 4, which supporters said could unlock the keys to the ballot box for hundreds of thousands of felons.
After the Republican-dominated Legislature passed the 2019 law requiring felons to pay "legal financial obligations" to be eligible to vote, civil-rights groups filed a legal challenge, saying that linking voting rights with finances amounted to an unconstitutional "poll tax." But an Atlanta-based appeals court upheld the law.
Supporters of Amendment 4 claimed that it would have an impact on more than 1.4 million convicted felons.
Requiring felons to pay court-ordered financial obligations whittled that number in half, according to research performed for the plaintiffs in the legal challenge over the 2019 law by University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith.
It’s unclear how many felons will have their rights restored under the expedited process approved Wednesday, or how long it will take for their applications to be reviewed.
As of September, the state had a backlog of more than 24,000 applications for restoration of civil rights, including the right to vote.
Florida’s labyrinthine and lengthy clemency process has been assailed for decades as a system designed to keep Black people from voting. But the changes imposed in 2011 made the system dramatically harder.
During Scott’s eight-year tenure, he and the clemency board restored the voting rights of about 3,000 of the more than 30,000 convicted felons who applied, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review.
In contrast, more than 155,000 ex-felons had their right to vote automatically restored during the four years of former Gov. Charlie Crist’s tenure, according to court documents.
Last year, DeSantis and the clemency board revised the clemency rule to allow requests for hearings by felons who have waited at least seven years after they have completed their time behind bars and have fulfilled other requirements but owe restitution to victims. Under the old rules, restitution had to be paid in full before felons could apply to have their rights restored.
"The main thing that needs to be done is to speed up the process," Greenberg said Wednesday.
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