Most Florida Felons To Regain Voting Rights More Easily After Finishing Sentences

Thursday, April 5th 2007, 6:33 pm

By: News On 6

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Most Florida felons will regain voting and other civil rights more quickly after completing their sentences under changes approved Thursday by the governor and the state clemency board.

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist pushed the change, saying the rights to vote, hold office and serve on a jury were fundamental to being part of a democratic society.

With 3-1 vote by Crist and the other members of the state's clemency board, state officials will begin the restoration process for felons once they complete their sentences. Previously, many felons needed to go before the board, which can take years to hear a case because of backlogs.

The change doesn't include the right to have a gun, which still isn't restored automatically for people with felony convictions. But it does make it easier for ex-felons to get occupational licenses, denied to people who haven't had their civil rights restored.

Florida was one of three U.S. states, along with Kentucky and Virginia, that required ex-felons to take action to restore their civil rights no matter how long they had been out of prison. Other states have waiting periods before restoration, though most restore rights automatically when felons complete their sentence.

The lone opponent on the Florida board was Attorney General Bill McCollum, also a Republican, who said that many felons aren't reformed and should have to earn their rights by staying crime-free for a certain time.

Few have accused Crist of being too lenient on criminals. When he served in the state Senate he was known as ``Chain Gang Charlie,'' and one of his high priorities this year is to return most violent probation violators to prison.

The Crist plan was a compromise with other board members who were concerned about going too easy on dangerous criminals. The 20 percent of felons finishing their sentence who have committed any one of a number of serious crimes will still need the clemency board to sign off on their case to get their rights back.

Those who have committed the worst crimes, such as murder or attempted murder, will still have to get on a waiting list to go before the board.

There isn't agreement on how many eligible ex-felons are out there, though it's definitely more than a half-million people.

State Corrections Secretary Jim McDonough said the agency would do what it could to find those people and tell them they can now easily have their rights restored quickly.

Crist said that the process for restoring rights was a vestige of a time better left in the past _ and that he didn't want Florida to be among a minority of states still clinging to it.

``Justice delayed is justice denied,'' he said. ``And people are waiting.''

Florida's previous refusal to erase the prohibition has been seen among many blacks as an unfair effort to limit members of their community from a full place in the state's civil affairs.

State Rep. Joyce Cusack, who is black, called it a ``historic time.''

``A new day is upon us where we encourage our ex-offenders to be active participants in our democracy by voting and seizing opportunities of employment for a new life,'' said Cusack, a Democrat.

Some advocacy groups said the new rule doesn't go far enough because it stops short of full automatic restoration of civil rights. Ex-offenders must still wait for the clemency board to send them a notice that their rights are restored.

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