TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Civil rights leaders met Wednesday with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, voicing their opposition to her call to halt the current practice of automatically restoring voting and other rights to nonviolent felons in the state once their sentences are up.
Presently, nonviolent felons’ civil rights are restored automatically once their sentences and any probation is completed. Those rights include voting, serving on a jury, holding public office and certain jobs requiring licenses, such as work as dental hygienists and alarm system contractors.
Bondi last week issued a statement saying felons should apply to get their rights back and be subject to a mandatory waiting period before they can apply. Restoration “must be earned; it is not an entitlement,” she said.
Florida’s Rules of Executive Clemency, which govern civil rights restoration, can be changed only upon the approval of the governor and two other Cabinet members. The Cabinet also sits as the state’s clemency board.
Howard Simon, executive director of Florida’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, met with Bondi on Wednesday at the Capitol along with a representative of the Florida conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Simon said delaying civil rights for felons effectively denies them their rights.
“The denial of civil rights to people is the great, unfinished business of the civil rights movement,” said Simon. As he understood it, Bondi “wants to delay restoration of civil rights so people can earn it.”
Dale Landry, vice president of the NAACP’s Florida State Conference, said making felons wait for the return of their civil rights amounts to a kind of double probation.
“All these gains in civil rights we’ve made over the years, and now they’re trying to turn the clock back,” Landry said.
Advocates say more than 100,000 Florida felons could be affected by any change.
Simon said nonviolent felons need to be quickly reintegrated into society, helping to avoid repeat offenses.
Bondi did agree, however, with the NAACP’s Landry, who argued that occupational licenses should not be denied to former inmates who have completed sentences. Such licenses, Landry argued, are key to earning a livelihood.
“Certainly, we’re concerned about jobs, and she agreed that we need to get people back to work,” Landry said.
Bondi issued a statement later Wednesday on the meeting calling the talks positive.
“While our opinions on the restoration of civil rights differ, I believe that constructive dialogue is an important part of the process to improve the restoration of civil rights rules,” her statement said.
State Senators Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Nan Rich, D-Weston, publicly opposed Bondi’s proposal last week, while the Florida Sheriffs Association supported it in a news release issued Wednesday.
But, said Landry, “the issue is national, not just Florida.”
About 5.3 million former felons around the country, for example, have currently or permanently lost their right to vote, according to a report from The Sentencing Project, which advocates for reform.
Simon said he had sent letters asking to meet with Bondi, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who make up the state’s clemency board. Bondi has been the only one yet to meet with him, Simon said.
Scott and Putnam told The Associated Press last week they favored Bondi’s plan.
Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Scott, said Wednesday outside the attorney general’s office that the governor was still “in line” with Bondi’s idea.
Pictured: Howard Simon