TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In what supporters called a historic change, Gov. Charlie Crist and the state clemency board agreed yesterday to restore voting rights to potentially hundreds of thousands of convicted felons.
The decision overhauls Florida's Jim Crow-era laws permanently stripping felons who finish their sentences of their civil rights unless they can persuade the governor and Cabinet to restore them - a cumbersome, often impossible, process.
Crist administration officials said the changes would immediately affect more than 30,000 pending applications. Also, they pledged to begin reaching out, perhaps even launching an advertising campaign, to the hundreds of thousands of former felons not petitioning for their rights, which also include the right to hold public office, obtain scores of occupational licenses and serve on a jury.
"This is about fundamental fairness," said Crist, who quoted Abraham Lincoln and invoked the Passover and Easter holidays while presenting the changes. "When somebody has paid their debt to society, it is paid in full. And there's a time to move on and to give them an opportunity to have redemption, to have a chance to become productive citizens again, to welcome them back to society."
Florida had been one of just three states to permanently revoke civil rights from felons, and the law become a civil rights issue after the botched 2000 presidential election in the state.
Kentucky and Virginia also require ex-felons to act to restore their civil rights no matter how long they have been out of prison.
Today, there are as many as 950,000 convicted felons in Florida, according to one recent estimate, though state officials yesterday put the figure at 628,000.
Crist pushed the new civil rights rules through the clemency board - made up of Crist and the Cabinet - on a 3-1 vote only after a combative hearing pitting the governor against fellow Republican Bill McCollum, the state attorney general.
McCollum cited John Couey, the man recently convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, as someone who would have been eligible under the new rules to obtain professional licenses for jobs, such as an exterminator, allowing him to enter private homes.
"I believe the people of Florida are losing a very valuable protection," McCollum said.
Some longtime supporters of civil rights restoration also criticized the plan, although for far different reasons. Activists were particularly upset by a provision that ex-felons must pay all the restitution they owe before they can win back their rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said it was exploring challenging the requirement in court, although it praised the rest of the changes as a significant breakthrough - if they work as effortlessly as touted.
The civil rights covered by the rules would not include the right to carry a gun. At Bronson's urging, the clemency board adopted a provision that forces felons who get their rights restored and subsequently commit another violent felony to wait 10 years after they are released from prison the second time before they are eligible for restoration again.
The issue was thrust into the national spotlight during the disputed 2000 presidential election when thousands of voters were blocked from casting ballots because their names appeared - sometimes mistakenly - on lists of suspected felons. It was targeted again in 2004 when state officials were forced to scrap a list of "potential felons" to be purged from voter rolls after it was found to be riddled with errors.
Jason Garcia and Maya Bell write for the Orlando Sentinel.