Gov. Rick Scott claims that he, not a federal judge, should determine how Florida restores the civil rights of ex-felons.
Seriously? That would be like having Bill Belichick design the Dolphins’ game plans against the Patriots.
Scott made this absurd argument Monday in response to the Feb. 1 ruling by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker that Florida’s Jim Crow-era system for how ex-felons can regain their rights is arbitrary and thus unconstitutional. A Scott spokesman said authority for clemency rests with “officials elected by Floridians, not judges.”
Before discussing where things go from here, we must understand how things reached this point.
After just 30 minutes of public comment, the board unanimously abolished rights restoration reforms enacted under former Gov. Charlie Crist. All ex-felons would have to wait at least five years even to apply for restoration. Only two other states have such harsh requirements. Scott did not make the proposed rules available until just before the meeting.
This next part is especially important. Putnam at least asked Scott why he favored the change. The governor’s answer: “Seemed reasonable.”
That is a textbook definition of “arbitrary.” Scott and Bondi cited no threat to public safety from the former policy. They cited nothing in regard to prison overcrowding and early releases, as former Gov. Lawton Chiles did when he tightened rules on rights restoration.
Perhaps the decision was about partisan politics. All the Clemency Board members are Republicans. A disproportionate share of ex-felons are African-Americans, who tend to vote Democratic. Or perhaps it was an attempt to look “tough on crime.”
Whatever the motivation, the action went against the trend in more enlightened states of sensible criminal justice reform. Those states include Texas, where lawmakers across the political spectrum finally understood that being smart on crime matters more than just being tough.
Florida got good advice more than a decade ago. Former Gov. Jeb Bush created the Ex-Offender Task Force. Its report in late 2006 noted that roughly 90 percent of state prison inmates would be released. Of those, 25 percent would commit another crime.
“This rate of recidivism,” the report said, “is unacceptably high and unacceptably expensive. For each new crime, there is a new victim, and new costs to Florida communities. This trend must be reversed.” Among the recommendations was quicker restoration of rights, so ex-felons could find work and be part of society.
For Crist, the epiphany came when he held a March 2007 town hall meeting in Lake Worth. He had been elected the previous November. Among those at the y’all-come session was a woman who had embezzled money from a former employer.
The woman waited eight hours to tell Crist that the felony conviction prevented her from becoming a nurse. The next month, Crist and two other members of the Clemency Board approved rules under which ex-felons who had committed non-violent crimes got their rights restored without having to apply — if the Parole Commission approved. The changes also made rights restoration faster for those convicted of violent crimes.
Though Crist’s action didn’t create automatic restoration, roughly 150,000 ex-felons regained their rights during his four years. The backlog of applications was about 100,000 when Crist left office.
Things have worsened dramatically under Scott. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, only 2,000 Floridians regained their rights during the first five years of the Scott administration. The backlog is now roughly 1.5 million in the nation’s largest swing state.
The Sentencing Project estimated that 10.4 percent of Florida’s voting-age population was disenfranchised in 2016 because of a felony conviction. That’s the highest rate in the nation. In comparison, the rate in Pennsylvania is 0.5 percent. In Ohio, it’s 0.6 percent.
On Monday, the governor’s office and the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit are supposed to give Walker their ideas for changing the system. Scott’s office has indicated that the governor may appeal.
Meanwhile, the petition drive for a constitutional amendment that would reform rights restoration has gained enough signatures to make the November ballot. The proposal would make restoration of the right to vote automatic upon completion of sentence for all ex-felons except those convicted or murder or a sex crime. Even if voters approve, ex-felons still could have trouble obtaining licenses to hold certain jobs.
There’s no way to tell whether the proposed amendment change would affect state politics. Ex-felons still would have to register to vote and then cast ballots. The change matters, though, because the current, outdated policy harms the state. On this issue, Florida is the wrong kind of outlier.