Ex-Felons Fight To Restore Their Right To Vote

Dec 11, 2015
Originally published on December 14, 2015 5:56 pm

In the Cabinet meeting room of the Florida Capitol building, there are plenty of shaky legs and fidgety hands as the state's clemency board, whose chairman is Gov. Rick Scott, sits down.

Four times a year, ex-felons in Florida petition to get their civil rights restored, including the right to vote.

Among the former felons in the room is Justin (NPR is withholding his last name at his request), who drove seven hours for a five-minute chance to make his case. He waits in the back of the room, clutching an Expando file full of court papers that date back to one mistake.

"1994. Miami. I was snatching a gold chain. And I did 31 months," said Justin. He was 16 at the time.

"I never thought that snatching a gold chain would lead to this. That I'm at the state Capitol at 38 years old trying to ask them for my rights back," said Justin.

Data from the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, show nearly 6 million former felons will not be able to cast ballots in next year's presidential election, with Florida being home to the largest number — more than 1.3 million as of 2010, the most recent year such information was available.

Justin sent his application in 2004, the earliest he could apply after a mandatory waiting period. Shortly after that, he completed a master's degree in accounting and got a steady job. The 11 years Justin has waited to see the clemency board feel to him like another sentence.

"I don't want a cookie or a pat on the back for not getting in trouble in 21 years," he pauses. "I should've never gotten in trouble in the first place. It's just me being a citizen and there's things I still can't do."

Thousands Of Applications Pending

Since Scott took office in 2011, his clemency board has reviewed 100,000 cases and restored civil rights to fewer than 2,000 people. More than 20,000 applications remain pending before the board.

"When you think of the typical person that cannot vote in the state of Florida, it's not the African-American guy who murdered a million people. It's not that crazed killer or rapist, no," said Desmond Meade, the head of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. "The typical person who cannot vote was, probably years ago, convicted of some low-level offense."

The group is collecting signatures to change Florida's clemency process to automatically restore rights to most ex-felons. So far, it has over 43,000 signatures of the 68,000 needed to trigger a review of the clemency process by the state Supreme Court.

Meade says clemency is a complicated and subjective process that has its roots in Jim Crow-era laws. He carries around the 13-page clemency application to show the process's problems. "They're asking you what's the name of your church; what's your denomination; what age you were when you left your parents' home; health; education," he said.

It's personal for Meade, who now has a law degree but can't apply to the Florida Bar or vote because of drug charges from the 1990s.

"Here I am as an advocate to have my rights restored, and it's discouraging to me," said Meade.

'The Risk You Take'

Losing the right to vote is the risk you take for committing a crime, argues Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank.

"If you're not willing to follow the law, then you can't demand a role in making the law for everyone else," said Clegg.

As one of the nation's staunchest supporters of case-by-case rights restoration, he believes states should set criteria for restoring civil rights — criteria based on lifestyle and likelihood to re-offend — and that low-level offenders like Justin should not have to wait more than two years to see the board.

"We're dealing with the government bureaucracy here, and in some cases it just may be that the clemency board has just done a bad job," said Clegg.

But with a quarter of Florida's African-Americans unable to vote, according to data from the Sentencing Project, and 10 percent of the state's total voting age population unable to cast a ballot, Howard Simon of Florida's American Civil Liberties Union is convinced the clemency process needs a complete overhaul.

"The quicker we reintegrate people back into society with a job, with a family, with having a stake in their community, the faster and more effectively we drop the recidivism rate," said Simon.

'Just Keep Going'

Back in the Cabinet meeting room, Justin's case is called up. He stands and rocks back and forth on his feet in front of Scott and other members of the clemency board as he talks about his goals, his family, his traffic tickets over the course of five minutes.

To Justin, the time in front of the commission feels like an eternity.

There's a pause after Justin makes his case, before Scott speaks into his microphone.

"I move to grant restoration of civil rights."

For Justin, this wait is over, but a new one begins. Next, he plans to petition the board for a full pardon, a process that could take years.

"I'll keep pushing through. Just gotta have my little file here. Put it in a little drawer when I get home," said Justin. "And I just keep going. I don't stop."

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

More than 5 million felons who have already done their time in prison will not be able to cast ballots in next year's presidential election. Florida has the largest number of these felons. In fact, about 10 percent of the state's voting age population has been convicted of a crime. That number is according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group. To get back their right to vote, they have to go before a clemency board that meets four times a year. Renata Sago from member station WMFE watched that board at work.

RICK SCOTT: Good morning. The executive clemency board meeting is now called to order.

RENATA SAGO, BYLINE: Legs shake and hands fidget in the cabinet meeting room of Florida's State Capitol Building. Rows of men in ties and women in skirts eye Gov. Rick Scott as he explains how this process works.

SCOTT: This is absolutely a board of clemency. There's no right to get anything here. It's not like a court where we are applying the law.

SAGO: Justin drove seven hours for a five-minute chance to make his case. He waits in the back of the room, clutching an Expando file full of court papers. They date back to one mistake.

JUSTIN: In 1994, Miami, I was snatching a gold chain, and I did 31 months.

SAGO: He was 16.

JUSTIN: I never thought that snatching a gold chain would lead to this, that I'm in State Capitol at 38 years old trying to ask them for my rights back.

SAGO: Justin sent his application in 2004, as soon as the law allowed. But his 11-year wait has felt like an added sentence, even though he now has a master's degree and a steady job.

JUSTIN: I don't want a cookie or a pat on the back for not getting in trouble in 21 years. I should've never gotten in trouble in the first place. It's just, me being a citizen. And there's things that I still can't do.

SAGO: Since Gov. Scott took office in 2011, this clemency board has reviewed about 100,000 cases. It's granted clemency to less than 2,000 people, and today more than 20,000 applications are pending. Desmond Meade is behind a petition to automatically restore rights to most felons.

DESMOND MEADE: The typical person that cannot vote is a person that probably years ago was convicted of some low-level offense.

SAGO: Right now, Meade says, clemency is a complicated and subjective process that was heavily influenced by Jim Crow laws. He carries with him a 13-page clemency application as proof.

MEADE: They're asking you, what's the name of your church, what's your denomination, what age you were when you left your parents' home, you know, your health, education.

SAGO: But that's the risk you take when you commit a crime, argues Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank.

ROGER CLEGG: If you're not willing to follow the law then you can't demand a role in making the law for everyone else.

SAGO: He's one of the nation's supporters of case-by-case rights restoration, but he says low-level offenders like Justin should not have to wait more than two years to see the board.

CLEGG: We're dealing with a government bureaucracy here, and it may be that in some cases the clemency board has just done a bad job.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Number 50, Justin.

JUSTIN: Good morning, Mr. Scott, panel. My name is Justin, and I'm here to basically ask the state of Florida for mercy and forgiveness for...

SAGO: Justin rocks back and forth, talks about his goals, his family, his traffic tickets. The five minutes feel to him like an eternity.

SCOTT: I move to grant restoration of civil rights.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I agree.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I agree.

SAGO: This wait is over, but for Justin, a new wait begins. Next he'll petition the board for a full pardon, which could take years.

JUSTIN: I'll keep pushing through. Just got to have my little file here, puts in a drawer when I get home and I just keep going. I don't stop.

SAGO: For NPR News, I'm Renata Sago in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.