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DeSantis, Clemency Board remove 5-year waiting period to restore civil rights to felons

Florida Rights Restoration Coalition celebrates victory, but says more work needs to be done
Florida lawmakers get guidance to improve felon voting eligibility
Posted at 11:10 AM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 19:28:33-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — Governor Ron DeSantis and the Clemency Board removed the minimum five-year waiting period for felons to apply to have civil rights restored, including the right to vote.

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

People who have their civil rights restored are three times less likely to re-offend, according to a review by the Florida Parole Commission

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition submitted proposed clemency reforms to DeSantis in February 2020. The plan eliminated 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 process that can take years to navigate. When the Clemency Board met in September, the Florida Commission on Offender Review had a backlog of 24,000 felons seeking restoration of rights with or without hearings.

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.

The revisions to the rules are designed to:

  1. provide an avenue for felons who have completed all terms of sentence under Amendment 4 to apply for automatic restoration of their full civil rights without a hearing;
  2. continue to provide an avenue for felons who have not completed all terms of sentence under Amendment 4 to apply for restoration of full civil rights with a hearing;
  3. streamline the Rules;
  4. expedite the processing of clemency applications; and
  5. reduce the backlog of clemency cases.

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 but may continue to apply for restoration of civil rights with a hearing under the current clemency process.

Following the meeting of the Board, the Governor unilaterally exercised his clemency powers to deny the pending clemency applications of all murderers and felony sex offenders.

The Governor’s mass denial of clemency to murderers and felony sex offenders will result in the immediate denial of approximately 300 pending clemency applications. The Florida Commission on Offender Review estimates that up to 1,000 pending clemency applications will be denied pursuant to the Governor’s action.

The revised Rules may be viewed by clicking here.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition celebrated just hours after the change was made. FRRC Executive Director Desmond Meade said the changes are welcome.

"It will impact hundreds of thousands of lives. Allow hundreds of thousands of returning citizens to not only be able to participate in democracy but have greater access to jobs, greater access to housing," said Meade.

But he says there is still work to be done, specifically involving the Floridians still trying to pay off their fines and fee.

"We know that the clemency board in the past did not require the payment of fines and fees. As a matter of fact, I believe a year ago, the Governor didn't even require the payment of restitution in order to apply to have your civil rights restored," said Meade. "What we will say is that if he can do it for the regular clemency process, why not just go all the way and do it for everything across the board?"

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried reiterated those thoughts. In part of a statement following the meeting, she said the following.

While the automatic restoration of civil rights that I've called for the past two years is crucial, doing so without a pathway for indigency disenfranchises thousands of Floridians who cannot afford fines and fees to the government. As I suggested, a simple affidavit of indigency with documentation would allow Floridians back their rights as they work towards payment.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried

Currently, the FRRC is working with legislators to figure out how to make it easier for returning citizens to locate any existing fines and fees and then pay them off. The coalition does provide assistance to anyone looking for help. If you would like to learn more about that help, you can visit their website.