Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida was right when he called for tearing down the barriers that prevent as many as 950,000 ex-offenders from voting in his state. But the new rules that were put in place to help former inmates reclaim their rights have fallen far short of what’s needed to bring democracy back to Florida.
The number of petitioners seeking to restore their rights has increased, but the process is excruciatingly slow and strewn with unnecessary hurdles. Unless the rules are further refined and the process speeded up, many ex-offenders will go to their graves without being permitted to vote. And until their voting rights are restored, many of these people will remain locked out of scores of state-regulated occupations for which restoration is listed as a condition of employment.
As a first step, the state needs to sever that connection, as was recommended by the ex-offender task force appointed by Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor. No reasonable person would want to see a sex offender working in a school or a career embezzler employed in a bank. But the practice of barring convicted felons from a whole range of jobs that have nothing to do with their offenses shuts them out of the economy and makes it more likely that they will return to jail.
The state should also end the practice of generally denying restoration to people who owe restitution to their victims. Restitution is, of course, important and should be paid. But it’s illogical to limit these ex-offenders’ employment opportunities and their ability to pay the compensation they owe.
Governor Crist served an important public service when he raised this issue. To ensure that ex-offenders get back their rights, the Legislature and he will have to do a lot more. What’s needed is for Florida to bring its policies into line with those of 39 other states that automatically restore voting rights once former inmates are released from prison or when they finish probation or parole. Only then will democracy return to Florida.
A New York Times Editorial published 10/12/07