ST. PETERSBURG – In August of 2005, Desmond Meade found himself standing in front of a railroad track under the blazing sun in south Florida.
Though the heat was stifling and oppressive, he tried to block that out. The only thing that was on his mind was how much pain he was going to feel when he jumped in front of an oncoming train. Would he die instantly? Or would he suffer moments of agonizing pain?
So began Meade’s gripping narrative when he spoke to a crowd April 28 for National Reentry Week at the St. Petersburg College Midtown campus, hosted by the Student Government Association. Meade is the current state director for Faith in Florida Live Free Campaign, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) and Chair of the Florida Coalition on Black Civic Participation’s Black Men’s Roundtable. As State Director of the Live Free Campaign, Desmond is currently engaged in addressing gun violence, mass incarceration, and felon disfranchisement.
He has come a long way from standing on the edge of that railroad track.
“That day when I was there I was homeless,” he explained. “I was addicted to drugs. I was unemployed. I was recently released from prison, and the only thing I owned was the clothes that were on my back.”
Deep down, Meade knew he wasn’t supposed to be where he was that day. He knew his mother didn’t raise him to be a crackhead on the very brink of desperation.
But there he was.
“I was broken and I was tired,” he said. “And I didn’t want to live anymore.
So he stood there, waiting for that train. But “by the grace of God,” the train never arrived that day. So Meade decided to cross the tracks, walk a couple blocks and check himself into a drug treatment facility. After four months of treatment he moved back into a homeless shelter. While living in the sparse surroundings of the shelter, Meade decided to enroll at Miami Dade College. He was tired of the “vicious cycle.” He simply didn’t want to get high anymore.
When he ended up graduating at the top of his class, his professors urged him to continue with his education. He took this advice and earned a bachelor’s in Public Safety Management with a concentration in Criminal Justice. Meade then got accepted into law school. In May 2014 he graduated from Florida International University College of Law.
But Meade maintains that his story does not yet have a happy ending.
“Even though I was able to overcome a lot of obstacles,” he said, “even though I was able to navigate my way through all the difficulties and even eventually make dean’s list in law school, I cannot practice law in the state of Florida because my civil rights have not been restored.”
Furthermore, until his rights are fully restored he will find roadblocks when it comes to owning a home or even renting due to restrictions from homeowners’ associations. He cannot vote. All this makes him feel like categorized as a second-class citizen.
Meade doesn’t call himself an ex-felon. He calls himself a returning citizen that has made a mistake, served his time and has entered back into the community. Many others are in the same boat as he is, he said, stating that almost six million people in the United States have lost their civil rights.
Once a person has committed a felony, he automatically loses the right to vote, to serve on a jury, to run for office and suffers collateral consequences, such as experiencing difficulty in finding employment and securing housing.
In some states, as an offender you never lose your rights, while in most states, you get your rights back once you’ve served your time. Florida, however, has some of the toughest policies concerning ex-felons, as an offender can lose his rights for life in this state. He noted that 175,000 people each year in Florida are convicted of a felony offense, yet fewer than 25 percent of those people actually get sentenced to prison.
When we talk about restoration of rights, second chances and reentry, he said, we tend to think of people who have been in prison and are returning to their communities. But they represent less than a quarter of convicted offenders. This leaves about 75 percent of those people who are stripped of their civil rights.
When most of us think of convicted felons we think only of the murderers and sex offenders, we have a natural inclination to not be supportive of policies that make it easier on them, Meade pointed out. Of these felons, only a third of them are African Americans.
“When people think about felons it’s typically going to be an African-American male with gold teeth, pants hanging off his butt that killed 20 people. That’s the image that not only you have,” Meade told the assembled crowd, “but the rest of America has.”
This problem for ex-offenders is not exclusively an African American problem, or a Democrat or Republican problem, Meade explained, but a problem for everyone in America. This issue crosses racial lines and political lines.
“It’s an all-American issue and it’s a moral issue about whether or not people deserve second chances,” he said.
In Florida it is so easy to get a felony conviction, he said. Disturbing turtle nest eggs on the beach will do it. So will burning a tire in public. Someone was even hit with a felony charge by trespassing on the Pier in St. Pete. One unlucky man was charged with a third-degree felony after releasing balloons into the air—balloons that he bought for his wife on Valentine’s Day.
“That’s how easy it is to get a felony conviction in the state of Florida,” Meade said, explaining state officials only seem to come up with more ways for citizens to be convicted of such offenses.
Consequently, the number of convictions is growing all the time. There is a chance for offenders to apply for reinstatement of their rights, Meade conceded, but the wait to apply is seven years and the hearing that would follow would come 10 years after that. And even then, the chance is slim. Under Governor Rick Scott’s administration, barely 1,000 people have had their rights restored—down dramatically from past administrations.
Why is it important to restore rights to people? In 2009 and 2010, Meade said, out of almost 30,000 people charged with felonies whose rights were restored, the recidivism rate went from 33 percent to 12 percent in 2009 and in 2010 the rate went from 33 percent to only 5.4 percent. Those 27,000 people did not commit another crime and became law-abiding citizens, he said.
“The quicker you help a person reintegrate back into their community once they’re released,” he said, “the less likely they are to re-offend. The sooner you give a person a stake in the community, the better it is for them and the community.”
But when the avenues of reintegration are cut off, the likelihood is increased that an offender will continue to commit crimes, such as robbery and selling drugs, in order to make money somehow. Restoring people’s civil rights should be a “no brainer,” Meade claimed, stating that it should be a basic human trait to forgive.
Not only is it the right moral choice, he said, but also it is essential for a community to be safer place, ultimately. Also, it costs the state $18,000 per year to incarcerate a single person. These expenditures at times have led to the laying off of personnel crucial to a community, such as police officers and firefighters. And that same money, Meade said, could have gone to educate children or provide healthcare, for example.
In respect to the loss of voters in African-American communities due to convictions, Meade noted: “Everyday somebody’s getting locked up in an African-American community in St. Pete, everyday someone’s getting convicted of a felony offense in the courts; that means that everyday your community is losing another voice.”
As a result, these communities are becoming less and less significant to politicians, as they rely on voters to get reelected and stay in office. Furthermore, since offenders cannot serve on juries—which should ideally be made up of people from all backgrounds and neighborhoods and even races—their voices are silenced in the courtrooms and halls of justice. This can ultimately weaken minority communities.
So what can be done?
“We started a Citizens’ Initiative last year,” Meade said, “to amend the state constitution that will allow for the automatic restoration of voting rights once a person has completed their sentence.”
It will not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses such as rape or child molestation, Meade explained. In giving all other offenders back the right to vote, Meade anticipates close to 1.8 million people will be able to become registered voters in the state of Florida.
Based on research, Meade believes at least 35 percent of them will become active voters. This can certainly make a difference in elections, he said, and can make way for politicians that more accurately reflect the needs of the community they represent.
Go to floridiansforafairdemocracy.com to sign a petition that will make sure the Voting Restoration Amendment appears on the 2016 ballot. This amendment will restore the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation.
The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the governor and cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.