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August 8, 2011

Florida officials apparently make citizens less safe by toughening policy of restoring rights to freed felons

The title of this post is prompted by this notable new piece from the St. Petersburg Times.  The piece is headlined "State toughens policy of restoring rights to freed felons," and here is how it begins:

Desmond Meade served time for cocaine possession and aggravated battery, but turned his life around and overcame the drug and alcohol addictions that forced him to live on the streets of Miami.

Seven years after walking out of state prison, Meade, 44, is in law school and helps run a halfway house for addicts. But what he wants most, he can't get: full citizenship and the right to vote.

Meade is one of 89,833 people waiting to have their civil rights restored by Gov. Rick Scott and three statewide-elected Cabinet members.  He's in for a long wait.

Under new rules Scott and the Cabinet adopted in March, Meade must now wait seven years for a clemency hearing.  A huge backlog of pending cases means it likely will take much longer for felons to regain the right to vote, serve on a jury or run for office.

"I find it disheartening," said Meade, who, as a second-year law school student at Florida International University, could select a jury before he's allowed to serve on one.  "A person such as myself, who has rehabilitated his life, for them to tell me that in spite of all of the accomplishments I've made that I'm not eligible to get my rights restored, is wrong.  I find it un-American."

Led by Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, officials scrapped a streamlined clemency process begun by former Gov. Charlie Crist that they felt was too easy for ex-offenders. The new system, in effect since March, requires felons to be crime-free for at least five years before their clemency petitions can be considered. Certain classes of violent felons, like Meade, must wait seven years.

But a new report by the Florida Parole Commission shows that a released felon in Florida whose civil rights are restored is much less likely to commit a new crime than others in the overall population of released prisoners.  The report, quietly delivered to officials a few weeks ago, has not been discussed publicly.

The agency studied 31,000 cases over a two-year period in 2009 and 2010 and found that about 11 percent of people whose civil rights were restored ended up back in custody.  The overall re-offense rate in the state is three times higher — 33 percent — according to the Department of Corrections.

I wonder if any advocates for smarter sentencing reforms — especially folks like Newt Gingrich and others on the right who have gotten involved in the "Right on Crime" campaign — might start vocally criticizing Florida's Governor and Attorney General for scraping a program that has appeared to be effective at reducing recidivism.  I fear that seemingly misguided and harmful "toughness" like we see in this Florida setting will not stop unless and until it gets subject to strong and vocal criticism by folks on all sides of the political aisle.

UPDATE:  I was able to find on-line at this link the Florida Parole Commission report that is mentioned in this article.  Significantly, as Kent Scheidegger properly notes in the comments, this report alone does not itself establish a causal link between restoraction of rights and reduced recidivism as there is surely some correlation between those least likely to reoffend and those who had been geting their rights automatically restored under Florida's old procedures.  Still, the fact that restoration was automatic in many cases under the prior rules perhaps suggests that this is more than a mere correlation, and it would be great if Florida officials or outside researchers could and would crunch these numbers further. 

August 8, 2011 at 06:30 PM | Permalink


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"I fear that seemingly misguided and harmful "toughness" like we see in this Florida setting will not stop unless and until it gets subject to strong and vocal criticism by folks on all sides of the political aisle."

Yep, and even more so for those with a federal felony. There is no relief and that is one of the reasons that Congressman Cohen introduced HR2449 the Fresh Start Act of 2011. The best antidote for recidivism is meaningful employment and by meaningful I don't mean hiring someone to shovel your s--- and watch the plantation while you vacation in the islands. We have had this conversation before on this blog so I fully expect the "get 'em down, keep 'em down and for good measure kick 'em while they are down" crowd to be in full cry. Sadly, in addition to all of his other problems,if Desmond Meade passes all of the courses to become a lawyer he will probably be disallowed from taking the bar exam. Oooh, just kicked him again.

Posted by: Thomas | Aug 8, 2011 8:05:21 PM

I applaud Florida, they at least present a path to clemency. In the State of North Carolina there is no hope.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 9, 2011 12:31:32 AM

not too much hope this guy MIGHT get his hearing by the time he's 80...and then no guarantee it's approved.

the things i feel are a joke is first the so-called 'streemlined" system this new retard govt tossed was put in place after years and years of state and federal lawsuits becasue the old sytem similar to what this retard has put in place was like 300,000 behind!

2nd of course is this is a representative republic where the RIGHT TO VOTE is basic to exercising that. to tell ANYONE who is a legitimate CITIZEN you CAN'T VOTE is a joke and a crime!

i can see a restriction after conviction while you serve your COURT ORDERED SENTENCE! after that is done ALL THE RESTRICTIONS are ALSO DONE!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 9, 2011 1:33:28 AM

"But a new report by the Florida Parole Commission shows that a released felon in Florida whose civil rights are restored is much less likely to commit a new crime than others in the overall population of released prisoners."

Is this passage the basis of the "apparently" in the title of the post?

You appear to be taking the position that this correlation demonstrates causation. That is, the group whose rights were restored had a lower recidivism rate than the the group whose rights were not restored because of the restoration.

The alternate hypothesis is that the people less likely to recidivate anyway were the ones chosen to have their rights restored.

Have I read you correctly, and, if so, is there any defensible basis for such an assumption?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Aug 9, 2011 10:40:03 AM

Kent, you are spot on concerning my use of the term "apparently," especially because I did not have a chance initially to look at the report itself. Prompted by your comment, I have found/linked the report and now have provided an updated commentary to spotlight your justified concerns about drawing causal links from a correlation. Perhaps you or others with number-crunching experiences can dig a bit more into the data to see if we can see if there is a real public safety benefit from restoration programs.

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 9, 2011 11:47:26 AM

Of course, if voting rights matter to people, then maybe they will get on the straight and narrow to get them.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 9, 2011 1:11:47 PM

horse pucky federalist! a RIGHT is a RIGHT you either HAVE IT or you DON'T! if you don't then STOP CALLING IT A RIGHT!


Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 9, 2011 1:47:05 PM

I fail to see the justification for permanent disenfranchisement in cases where the full sentence (incarceration, fines, parole supervision, etc.) has been discharged. What is the message sent by creating a permanent group of second-class citizens, even after they have done everything necessary to make the average person think they have "paid their debt to society"?

Historically, at least in the South, these provisions have the same unseemly provenance as the poll tax, the literacy test, and the grandfather clause -- i.e., products of racist post-Civil-War constitutional conventions explicitly aimed at limiting the franchise to white property owners. The nominal justifications may have changed over time, but these practices still reek of invidious discrimination and anti-democratic impulses.

Cui bono?

Posted by: Anon | Aug 9, 2011 3:15:51 PM

Actually, in North Carolina civil rights (voting, holding office, and serving on a jury) are automatically restored after completion of sentence and expiration of parole.
The automatic restoration to not extend to firearm possession.

www.sentencingproject.org/doc/File/Collateral Consequences/NorthCarolina.pdf

Posted by: Bryan Gates | Aug 9, 2011 4:09:12 PM

To add to what Mr. Gates has said, I would note that roughly twice as many whites as blacks are felony disenfranchised, see http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/File/FVR/fd_losingthevote.pdf

Thus, if felony disenfranchisement is a tool of white racism, it's hilariously counterproductive, since it keeps many more whites off the rolls than blacks.

Not that I expect this fact to make the shopworn, if still snarling, charge of racism go away, the charge having become S.O.P. in some quarters.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 9, 2011 4:23:54 PM

actually up till the criminal stupidity in our govt in the 1960's you got ALL your rights back upto and including the right to own and use a weapon. Heck if the govt had any of yours in their posession they would return them!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 10, 2011 12:18:09 AM

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