Gov. Charlie Crist is set to square off with other state officials over his proposal to end the practice of stripping ex-convicts of their civil rights, including the right to vote.
Following up on a campaign promise that puts him at odds with many in his Republican Party, Crist must win the backing of at least two colleagues on the four-member Florida Board of Executive Clemency, which is to hold a special session Thursday to address the issue.
Florida is one of just three states, all in the Deep South, that have constitutional barriers to restoring civil rights to those who have committed serious crimes, rights groups say.
Crist’s predecessor, fellow Republican Jeb Bush, opposed automatic restoration. But Crist has called the failure to restore rights a legacy of the era of “unjust” anti-black Jim Crow laws of the racially segregated south.
Civil rights groups note that, compared to the general population, felons are more likely to be from lower income and minority groups, which traditionally vote Democratic.
Crist’s efforts on the behalf of felons is just one of a host of ways he has distinguished himself from Bush, the president’s younger brother, in his first three months in office.
He has hosted a meeting on global warming, sought ways to reduce hurricane insurance bills and tried to introduce paper trails for electronic voting—all issues Bush declined to act on.
Florida law currently requires most felons to wait five years after they finish serving their sentences before petitioning the clemency board to get back their right to vote, own a gun, sit on a jury or perform other civic duties.
The board, which meets four times a year, has a backlog of more than 35,000 requests.
Any plan would likely allow most non-violent convicted felons to regain their rights upon their release without a hearing as long as fines or restitution was paid. Hearings would still be required for most violent offenders.
Opposed by attorney general
Civil libertarians say the compromise goes in the right direction but they fear it will not restore rights to nearly 1 million former felons who have simply not applied.
Secondly, they say the requirement that felons complete restitution—a requirement that affects a minority of felons—will make it more difficult because many will be unable to find the work they need to make the money to pay it. Many trades require an occupational license, which cannot be awarded unless civil rights are restored.
Meanwhile, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, another Republican and panel member, has spoken out against automatically restoring the civil rights of felons.
The two other members of the panel, state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, a Republican, have broadly expressed support for Crist’s plan.
Law enforcement groups want the waiting period to remain intact.
“Without a five-year waiting period, there is no way to know if a felon will be a repeat offender and will commit an even more serious, violent crime,” said W. Nolan McLeod, president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, in a statement.