State Rep. Cord Byrd has filed a bill that allows those who’ve completed prison and probation sentences for felonies to seek to have their voting and gun rights restored by petitioning judges.
Currently, those convicted of felonies have those civil rights revoked, as well as the right to serve on a jury and run for public office, unless the governor offers clemency. The bill filed Wednesday would allow people to petition courts to restore those rights, and it allows state attorney’s offices to oppose the petitions.
Judges must determine if the people asking for their rights back have led law-abiding lives since release and if they’re likely to continue to obey the law, if they’re not likely to be a danger to others and if giving back the rights is not contrary to the public’s interest.
Judges could not restore individual rights, like voting rights or the right to serve on a jury, but would be required to restore all rights, including the right to own and carry firearms.
Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, runs a law firm that is focused on gun rights, and he said he handles petitions for clemency and knows how backlogged that system currently is. The Florida Constitution Revision Commission, which is considering constitutional amendments that would automatically restore voting rights, has said that the current clemency process has a backlog of more than 20,000 cases.
Byrd said that his bill is about trusting judges to decide if people are ready to have their rights back. “When their sentence is over and they’ve paid their debt to society, I think they should be afforded the right to have someone consider whether they should have their rights restored. … This is not to give violent felons the opportunity to get a gun. That’s not going to happen. I can’t imagine a judge granting them their rights. This is for that person who has made a mistake once in their life.”
However, the Florida Constitution bars anyone convicted of a felony from voting, and it says those rights are restored by the governor. Byrd said he thinks his bill is still acceptable because the state constitution doesn’t explicitly say only the governor can restore rights. Others disagree.
“As the Florida Constitution currently reads, I can conceive of no way the legislature can restore voting rights,” said Hank Coxe, a former president of The Florida Bar and the chairman of the Constitution Revision Commission committee overseeing proposals to change the constitution by restoring voting rights. “I am uncomfortable with any process that includes a human element making a decision as to whether voting rights get restored.”
Instead, Coxe said, expanding voting rights must come through a constitutional amendment.
1.5 MILLION CAN’T VOTE
Florida has one of the most expansive felony laws in the nation. In Florida, theft of anything valued at more than $300 is a felony, for example. A National Conference of State Legislatures’ 2014 report found that only three states had lower thresholds.
Florida is also an outlier in revoking civil rights from anyone convicted of a felony, not allowing them to vote or carry firearms unless the governor restores those rights. As a result, Florida has the highest felony disenfranchisement in America, according to The Sentencing Project, with about 1.5 million people unable to vote because of felony convictions.
Desmond Meade, who has been leading the effort to amend the constitution through a ballot initiative, said he hasn’t had a chance to review Byrd’s bill, but he thinks restoring rights is inevitable. “I can tell you that it’s great that there is a discussion going on, and that it’s coming across the aisle. I think that is a good thing when both sides can really understand there is a need to do something about the antiquated system we have now.”
Meade’s proposal would allow anyone who has completed their sentence — except those guilty of murder or sex offenses — to have their voting rights restored. The initiative, however, would not restore their rights to own a gun, serve on a jury or run for office.
“You’re having conservatives and progressives and young and old and white and black and Latino all saying the same thing,” he said. “There’s nothing that speaks more to citizenship than their ability to have their voice heard. That has been my number one sole focus primary right there. You don’t need to be a citizen to have a gun, but you need to be a citizen to be able to vote. To me, that, of all the civil rights being lost, that stands head and shoulders above everything else. That speaks to being an American more than anything else.”
CAN JUDGES HANDLE CASELOAD?
Chris Smith, a former Democratic state senator who tried for years to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot restoring voting rights, said he supports giving judges the ability to restore civil rights, but not shoehorning judges into an all-or-nothing proposal.
“Judges make decisions every day that aren’t all or nothing,” he said. “There’s no one-size fits all, so I wouldn’t have a problem with judges parsing out certain rights.”
Under the current system, he said, “the governor sits like Caesar, like the king, thumbs up or thumbs down whether you can re-enter society. You have paid your debt to society, but now you have to go up to Tallahassee and thumbs up or thumbs down. I don’t care who the governor is, it’s not right.
“I’d rather it be a part of the judicial process. If a judge is taking your life and liberty, I’m sure they can make a decision about whether you can vote or get a license.”
Regardless of the specifics, those on the right and the left seem to agree the current system needs to change. Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy for the conservative James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, said he’s glad to see a Republican make a proposal to expand civil rights. He wouldn’t share his opinion on Byrd’s specific proposal until it has had a staff analysis, but he said he expects the constitutional amendments being debated in 2018 gives legislators a prime chance to change Florida’s criminal justice system. “We have tiptoed as a state in the right direction but there is absolutely more room for improvement on the policy side.”
Last year, state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, filed a bill that would’ve stopped non-violent convictions from automatically removing civil rights, including the rights to vote, own a gun and serve on a jury. A staff analysis found that legislation alone couldn’t stop convictions from removing voting rights.
Rouson and Smith now sit on the Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years to propose changes to the state constitution. No one on the commission offered an initiative that would have changed how non-voting rights are removed, and the deadline to put forth constitutional amendments has passed. Commissioners could, however, still change the current proposals.
“The excitement is that the discussion continues to take place in both the legislature and the CRC,” said Rouson, who is also the former leader of the St. Petersburg NAACP. “The importance of this issue cannot be underestimated or treated lightly. … We must discontinue a practice of disenfranchisement that has amounted to 1.5 million people being prohibited from participation in community and society.
“We keep coming at this thing, year after year after year, but I’m the eternal optimist that something will happen in 2018, either through the legislative process or on the ballot amendment. And so I applaud every attempt. I applaud every legislator and commissioner of the CRC in their efforts to grant enfranchisement to human beings who have paid their debt, done their time, and now seek only to be re-integrated fully. Yet the practical politics behind this is that violent offenders and full restoration are still treated with circumspection when it comes to gun rights and full rights, like voting.”
Andrew Pantazi: (904) 359-4310