The problem is that Florida's newly proposed clemency rules fail to explicitly address how to treat literally hundreds of thousands of currently disenfranchised ex-felons who already have completed their sentences and are law-abiding taxpayers, living and working in their communities. The governor's office has said that the State Department of Corrections will try to be proactive in assisting these individuals by transmitting their records to the Florida Parole Commission for processing. But this still falls short of a truly fair and effective plan to restore the right to vote.
The new process is made additionally unfair by the rule that all ex-offenders who owe restitution will remain ineligible for civil rights restoration.
Without a doubt, every person ordered to pay restitution should pay it. Yet the irony is that they cannot pay restitution until their civil rights are restored, since civil rights restoration opens up employment opportunities that are now closed to them. The requirement to pay restitution before regaining civil and voting rights should not be part of a fair solution.
I applaud Crist and his Cabinet as they continue to work on comprehensive civil rights restoration reform. The effective reintegration of ex-offenders, as well as basic principles of democratic fairness, dictate that Florida should adopt a truly automatic, paperwork-free rights restoration process for all Floridians who have completed their sentences. It also should remove the financial barriers to restoration of civil rights.
It is a matter of simple fairness that once a person has completed the entire sentence, his or her rights should be restored. My experience visiting prisons, including one in Florida, and that of my wife as a member of Prison Fellowship, Chuck Colson's wonderful (and very effective) ministry, convinces me that being able to start with a clean slate after fully completing one's sentence provides an important element of hope during incarceration. I am further convinced that the ability to fully participate as a productive citizen - including becoming a full voting member of society - reduces the rate of recidivism and is an incentive for those in prison to change their behavior for the good.
Maryland is poised to abandon its voting bans, and Florida has taken an important first step. Now other states - especially Kentucky and Virginia, the last two states that permanently disenfranchise ex-offenders for life - should take action. As a member of the party founded in large part by Abraham Lincoln, I'm proud to stand in favor of this historic civil rights reform.
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