26 January 2011 ~ 0 Comments

For convicted felons, a path exists to having their civil rights fully restored

For convicted felons being released from prison after having completed their sentence, a lot of tough realities await them on the outside: a criminal record that makes it harder for them to find a job, get credit, or rent a good apartment. They have to start the long, slow process of demonstrating that they’re ready to become productive citizens and have left any criminal behavior behind them.

Being a convicted felon also means a loss of certain rights that most Americans take for granted. That includes the right to vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, own a gun or ammunition, serve in the military and hold certain types of occupational licenses. Florida is one of three states that permanently removes these rights for people with past felony convictions.

This is true even after an inmate has completed all the terms and conditions of their sentence.

But there is a process for getting those rights restored. Joyce Hamilton Henry, director of the Mid-Florida Regional Office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, knows the process and is ready to help convicted felons who have paid their dues to society, and now want an opportunity to demonstrate they’ve changed their ways.

“The first process is they need to fill out a form and submit it to the Office of Executive Celemency,” she said. “Then we do a background check and make sure all of the information you provided is correct.”

On Monday, Henry set up a table at the Re-Entry Fair for people on probation and their families. Held at the Lake County Agricultural Center, it was sponsored by the Florida Department of Corrections, Probation and Parole of Lake County and the Lake County Department of Conservation & Compliance’s Probation Services Division.

The fair brought together a host of social service providers covering a range of issues, including how people on probation can get their GED, write a resume or apply for a job, seek out substance abuse services, or find health care for themselves and their families. The fair was organized to help people on probation get their lives straightened out and not make a mistake that lands them back in jail.

Henry was also at the fair, to walk offenders through the process of having their civil rights restored.

She brought with her Restoration of Civil Rights Data worksheets, the application form used by anyone convicted of a crime in Florida, or who has moved here but has an out of state conviction. The applications are submitted to the Office of Executive Clemency in Tallahassee.

The board is made up of the Florida Cabinet, which includes the four elected statewide offices of governor, chief financial officer, attorney general and commissioner of agriculture. The civil rights can be restored by an executive order signed by the governor and two of the cabinet members. To qualify, offenders must have completed their sentence and supervision, have no pending charges against them, and have paid all of their court-ordered restitutions.

Offenders can apply as a Level I, II or III case. The state provides a list of offenses that fall under under category.

“The Clemency Board, after doing a background check, will make a recommendation on your case,” Henry said. “They meet four times a year. For a Level I application, you don’t have to appear before the Clemency Board, and your application can simply be submitted to the board. If you’re a Level II application, you must go to Tallahassee and go before the Clemency Board.”

To make a strong case before the board, Henry said an offender needs to demonstrate that they’ve changed and now are a productive member of society.

“Certainly, it does not hurt if the individual is gainfully employed, actively involved in the community, has done volunteer work, and can prove they have been a good citizen,” she said. “They also need to show they have learned their lessons and reintegrated into the community.”

In April 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist joined former Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson and former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink in voting to automatically restore the civil rights of thousands of convicted felons in Florida, during a special meeting of the Clemency Board. The change allows offenders to apply for the right to vote, hold office, service on a jury and apply for a professional license, as long as they have completed the terms of their sentence and made full payment on their court ordered restitution.

The list of automatically granted rights didn’t include the right to own a gun, and felons still have to apply for that right on a case-by-case basis. Under the new rules, criminals convicted of murder or a sex offense — the Level III category — have to live for 15 years without an arrest before they can regain their civil rights. Serious violent offenders — Level II — can get their rights restored within 30 days if the governor and at least two Cabinet members approve the application.

Some civil rights activist criticized the provision requiring offenders to have paid restitution before having their rights restored. They argued that being a convicted felon makes it very difficult to find a solid job and make payments on their restitution. Having their rights restored, they claimed, would make it easier for offenders to find gainful employment.

To learn more, call the Office of Executive Clemency at 850-488-2952. The ACLU of Florida encourages offenders to submit letters of reference or character affidavits from past or current employers, clergy, and neighbors. These letters are optional, but could be helpful to their application.

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