Restoration of felon voting rights

Gov. Rick Scott has restored fewer than 4,000 felons’ voting rights in his almost eight years in office, while former Gov. Charlie Christ restored more than 155,000 felons’ rights during his four-year term.

BY VANESSA CHASE, Neighborhood News Bureau

ST. PETERSBURG – Over 1.5 million Floridian felons currently not represented in elections could be granted voting rights under a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot this Nov.

If passed, Amendment 4 will restore the voting rights of all felons who have completed their sentencing, parole and probation, excluding murder and sexual assault felonies. Florida is one of only four states in which returned citizens still face the risk of never voting again.

Approved by Governor Rick Scott in 2011, current Florida law denies felons the restoration of voting rights until five years after completion of their sentence; some wait up to 10 years. The governor has restored fewer than 4,000 felons’ voting rights in his almost eight years in office.

Former Governor Charlie Christ restored more than 155,000 felons’ rights during his four-year term.

Thirty percent of disenfranchised felons in Florida are black — approximately one in five African Americans of voting age — while they are only 16.9 percent of the state’s population.

Disenfranchising felons has taken away the representation of thousands of people in Pinellas County. In 2017, the daily population awaiting a felony pre-trial in the Pinellas County jail was 1,446, according to the average inmate population report generated in Tallahassee. Miami Dade County, a population more than twice as large as Pinellas, had only 110 more.

Many of these disenfranchised citizens are active members in the community and continue to fight for their voice to be heard.

Community activist Jabbar Edmond

Community activist Jabaar Edmond

Jabaar Edmond, vice president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, a filmmaker and a local organizer at SEIU, Florida Public Service Union, is responding to his circumstances with passionate activism.

“There are people in the Florida Department of Corrections for driving violations, five-year mandatory sentences. People who stole $400 worth of electronics or bags. They come home after serving their time and still can’t vote,” Edmond said. “Stealing isn’t ok, crime isn’t ok, but no one should have to suffer for life because of these mistakes. This is what I call the silent life sentence because they’re silencing people for life.”

Edmond has been disenfranchised himself for almost 20 years after being charged with a felony when he was 19 years old. He is now 39.

Edmond had to learn to readjust to society. He is not ashamed of his past but continually feels stigmatized and demonized.  He said it’s an “unspoken challenge,” which is a considerable hurdle to scale.

“We live in a progressive society, but it’s not progressive enough to see the origins of laws. Amendment 4 is like the Emancipation Proclamation; this is how huge it is for Floridians like myself because I’m currently living in modern-day slavery. The processes, the policies and practices that are still being used in our current government heighten the odds of people like me going to jail.”

Black communities suffer disenfranchisement at a rate much higher than whites. NAACP studies show in 2016, black inmates made up 32 percent of the prison population while only representing 12 percent of the general population.

Edmond makes the point that much of the stigma around crime, welfare, ghettos and prison is associated with black communities, but statistics prove that white people are just as involved in these issues.

“Even when they [white and black people] are in the exact same circumstances, the system has got them to only see our differences. The blame is put on black people to feed the narrative,” Edmond explained.

Reports from the Miami Herald prove the recidivism rate dramatically decreases when returned citizens are granted their voting rights. Florida experienced this change in rates when Charlie Crist was governor and restored the rights of over 155,000 voters, lowering the state average of 26.3 percent to 12.4 percent. Less than one percent of those who had their rights restored returned to prison.

The state saw recidivism skyrocket again when Gov. Scott took office, and the number of restoration cases significantly decreased, raising the number to 25.4 percent.

Florida has faced criticism for its high incarceration rate, which is 20 percent higher than the national average. According to a report produced by the state Senate this year, in 2017, Pinellas County inmates accounted for 5.14 percent of the entire incarcerated population in Florida. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s representatives at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said that they “had not discussed the amendment with him” and could not provide any statements from the sheriff.

Still, Amendment 4 is supported by most Pinellas County officials. St. Pete’s District 5 City Councilmen Steve Kornell, Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlie Justice, District 2 Commission Pat Gerard and a representative of Mayor Rick Kriseman affirmed by email their full support of the amendment.

Charlie Justice wrote: “When 46 other states can do this effectively, but Florida refuses — it’s just wrong and needs to change.”

The Pinellas County Urban League is also urging Florida residents to support Amendment 4, saying their endorsement is a “non-partisan effort to allow felons real second chances as returning citizens after serving sentences and probation and paying restitution to regain their voting rights.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch passionately supports the Amendment.

“The process of rights restoration has been made nearly impossible under Gov. Rick Scott, who intentionally decimated Gov. Charlie Crist’s initiative to make rights restoration automatic,” he said. “It is time for this intentional voter disenfranchisement to end. I fully support Amendment 4.”

A recent poll conducted by the University of North Florida shows tremendous support for the amendment among registered voters. Seventy-one percent of respondents claimed they would vote yes and 21 percent said they would vote no. Only eight percent of respondents said they were unsure of how they’ll vote.

Amendment 4 needs 60 percent of the votes to pass. A vote “yes” means felons who have served their sentences, parole and probation can have their civil rights restored so long as they are not convicted of murder or a sexual offense.

The General Election is Tuesday, Nov. 6.

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