FORT LAUDERDALE – Waiting in long lines to vote or apply for a business license might seem like a miserable process, until you’ve lost the right to do so.
State Rep. Perry Thurston is reaching out to ex-offenders with a workshop on Oct. 24, seeking to help them reclaim those rights back.
Taiwan Daniels of Fort Lauderdale was stripped of his rights after he was convicted on a cocaine possession charge when he was 16. He served a 21-day sentence in juvenile confinement back in 1997. Now 28, Daniels had his rights restored in October 2008.
Although Gov. Charlie Crist pushed through procedures in April 2007 to speed up the clemency process for people who are seeking their civil rights, Daniels said the process was anything but quick and easy.
“I had to call numerous times, the task was very daunting and very disheartening…the system isn’t designed to say, ‘OK, you made a mistake, now you’ve met the criteria to have your rights restored,’” Daniels said.
Thurston, who has been a criminal defense attorney in Broward County for the past 21 years, created the Civil Rights Restoration and Sealing/Expungement workshop to help hasten the process for ex-offenders or anyone else who has lost their rights.
“What normally happens is a person will have to run around and get their records, and run around and see if they qualify,’’ Thurston told the South Florida Times. “We’re going to have them sit in one room and we’ll be able to tell them right then. They’ll have computers that will tie in to the county computers and we’ll be able to tell them, ‘Based on this offense, unfortunately, we can’t seal your record,’ or maybe we can.’’
The new clemency process does not apply to murderers and sex offenders.
More than 138,000 people had their rights restored between April 2007 and March 2009.
Daniels said that going through the process alone is nearly impossible.
“For the average individual that does not have anyone to help them, it’s like dropping them off in the middle of a foreign country in a jungle that they’ve never been to before,” Daniels said.
Elton Edwards of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Miami began assisting Daniels after meeting him at an ACLU-sponsored workshop.
The ACLU is encouraging the state of Florida to automatically restore rights to hundreds of thousands of ex-offenders. The ACLU is also asking the state to remove a requirement that ex-offenders must pay court-ordered restitution before they get their rights restored, The New York Times reported.
Daniels said Edwards gave him a blueprint for navigating through the process, with directions on which people to contact, how to ask questions, how to give answers and how not to allow the clemency board members to forget who he was. Edwards directed Daniels to supplement his applications with personalized stories of his growth as a member of society.
“He really needed a true second chance to be all that he had the potential to be…and by him having this conviction on his record, not having his rights would impede his progress or his ability to pursue the goals and dreams that he had,” Edwards said.
Daniels now has his civil rights, and is in the process of securing multiple business licenses. He is pursuing a job in life-insurance sales, and volunteers with Thurston.
With six workshops under his belt, Thurston removes a lot of legwork and red tape by bringing all the key people in one place to expedite the process.
“We just need for them to show up,’’ Thurston said. “If they have information regarding when their conviction occurred, what year and when they completed their sentence, that would be great.’’
Florida is one of few states that does not automatically grant rights restoration to convicts after they have served their terms. Whether the person has spent time behind bars or not, their rights can still be taken away, experts say.
There are many time-consuming stipulations to the clemency process, such as extensive background checks and signatures of approval from members of the clemency board in Tallahassee. Thurston said he hopes to see more changes from the government so the process can run more smoothly.
“But until we get there, we are going to help as many of the people in our community as possible,” he said.
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Rep. Perry Thurston
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Civil Rights Restoration and Sealing/Expungement Workshop
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
WHERE: Strayer University, 2307 Broward Boulevard, Suite 100, Fort Lauderdale