Monday, December 22, 2014

Florida leads nation in voting denial over felonies

Willie Black: FloridaBlack, 47, spent almost seven years in prison on a charge of traffic in stolen property. He was released less than a year ago, and it will be several years before he can apply to restore his civil rights. Black said it is frustrating not to have the voice his vote would give him. Photo by Michael Ciaglo/News21
Willie Black: FloridaBlack, 47, spent almost seven years in prison on a charge of traffic in stolen property. He was released less than a year ago, and it will be several years before he can apply to restore his civil rights. Black said it is frustrating not to have the voice his vote would give him. Photo by Michael Ciaglo/News21 News21
Gallery: NEWS21 -Felons

Vikki Hankins is one of about 1.5 million Floridians fighting for the vote - a right more difficult to regain under Republican Gov. Rick Scott than his GOP predecessor.

Hankins, 43, served 18 years in federal prison for selling crack cocaine. Since her release in 2008, she has completed an associate's degree, started a publishing company, and run an advocacy group for criminal justice.

Although Hankins has never voted, she says she's earned that right. But she is frustrated and worried that regaining her rights - to vote, serve on a jury, and hold public office - might not happen until she's "50, 60 years old."

Florida leads the nation in disenfranchising felons, especially African Americans. In 2010, about 520,500 African Americans - 23 percent of the state's black voting-age population - could not vote because of a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based criminal-justice reform group.

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  • An estimated 5.85 million felons across the country could not vote in 2010, the last year for which the Sentencing Project has data.

    Florida's process for restoring a felon's civil rights grew stricter last year when Scott and his cabinet established a five- or seven-year wait, depending on the offense before felons could apply to have their rights restored.

    In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist's first year in office, 38,971 felons regained their civil rights. Last year, Scott and his cabinet, acting as the Board of Executive Clemency, restored civil rights to 78 people.

    As of July 1, there was a backlog of 21,197 applicants, according to the Florida Parole Commission.

    Scott, in a news release last year, said his policy is "intended to emphasize public safety and ensure that all applicants desire clemency, deserve clemency, and demonstrate they are unlikely to reoffend." He declined multiple requests from News21 for an interview.

    While felons could have applied to restore their civil rights under Crist, who served until 2011, a backlog that began accumulating in 2001 meant many cases were not reviewed while he was in office.

    In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida found through a public- records request that 17,604 certificates for restoration of civil rights have been returned to the Florida Parole Commission as "undeliverable." Of these, 13,517 people have not registered to vote.

    In 2001, after a critical report from the parole commission, a state judge ordered the state to review the rights restoration of 150,000 felons.

    For the first time since 2003, the Florida legislature this year gave the Parole Commission money - $350,000 annually for three years - to process applications that do not require a clemency hearing.

    A recent law school graduate, Jessica Chiappone needs to restore her rights so she can apply to the Florida bar. She is vice president of the Miami-based Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, an advocate for education about and restoration of civil rights to felons.

    "It shouldn't be this hard to become a productive member of society," Chiappone said. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, she was convicted in 1999 of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

    Florida is one of three states, along with Kentucky and Virginia, where about 20 percent of African Americans could not vote in 2010 because of felony convictions, the Sentencing Project said.

    "It certainly has a racially disproportionate impact, just as the criminal justice system has a racially disproportionate impact," said attorney Dante Trevisani, of the Florida Justice Institute, a nonprofit civil-rights group based in Miami.

    Hans von Spakovsky, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, conservative public policy research institute, said blocking felons from voting is not racially motivated.

    "We know that's not true because, in fact, felon disenfranchisement has been going on for centuries. It was the policy of a majority of the states even before the Civil War, when African Americans couldn't vote."

    Andrea Rumbaugh FOR THE INQUIRER
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