Opinion, Staff Editorial

Florida’s former felons deserve a second chance

When it comes to voting, Florida is more than a swing state – it’s a discriminatory one, too.

One in 10 Florida adults – approximately 1.5 million people – cannot vote due to a felony conviction. They might be pastors, veterans or nonprofit leaders – but under current Florida law, they will always be seen as felons first.

This fall, Floridians have the chance to change that by restoring voting rights to former felons.

The Voting Restoration Amendment, or Amendment 4, offers a long-overdue answer to Florida’s unfair treatment of former felons. Unlike other states, such as Maine, where even those still serving time can vote, Florida prevents former felons from voting altogether, unless they embark on a years-long process to have the chance to regain that right.

After a minimum of five years, freed felons can begin applying to have their civil rights restored. That process, though, includes appearing before the clemency board in Tallahassee – and since the board only comprises four members, including Gov. Scott, the wait can be prohibitively long.

Under Amendment 4, those who have committed felonies, excluding murderers and sex offenders, would automatically earn back the right to vote, provided they are off parole or probation.

Former felons repeat criminal behavior when they can’t adjust to normal life outside prison walls. A lack of family support, education, employment and shelter can spur a return to crime, according to the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that advocates for former prisoners.

If they were welcomed back by society, offered steady employment and the chance to enjoy a normal lifestyle – a true second chance – they might be less likely to revert to old habits.

Legal barriers add to the stigma already set forth by social ones. While society might not be able to change overnight, the law certainly can. If Amendment 4 makes a former felon feel even a little more normal, like they’re a true, worthy member of society, might it not direct them down a different path? If you find yourself fighting the idea of such an amendment, it’s worth asking yourself why.

Likely, it has something to do with your moral compass. It makes sense: if a person finds it acceptable to hurt or steal from someone else, do they really deserve the same say come election day? Can we really trust their judgement? But the popular portrayal of felons doesn’t accurately depict every type of offender.

In 2012, 46 percent of felons serving time under state jurisdiction were nonviolent offenders, according to a bulletin by the U.S. Department of Justice. They were convicted of things such as fraud, drug possession and burglary. These are certainly unsavory offenses, but for many, they nonetheless rank a little lower on the scale of moral misgivings.

What’s more, there is precedent for bouncing back post-prison. Tallahassee pastor Gregory James, who went on to lead the congregation at Life Church International Center and champion rights for former felons, served 14 years for selling drugs. As of 2016, he still could not vote.

The “us vs. them” mentality in regard to former felons springs from the view of the legal system as the sole measure of morality. But people like James, an example of a life turned around if there ever was one, still cannot vote.

The black-and-white view of morality cannot help but gloss over gaps in the justice system. Some felons were sentenced as children and never got the chance to vote at all, while some were, inevitably, wrongfully convicted. And many were sentenced on the basis of discriminatory policing practices.

If a person is deemed safe enough to re-enter society after serving time, the right to vote should come along with it (if the true purpose of prison is, indeed, to reform). The government, after all, doesn’t see them as incapable of society’s other responsibilities, such as paying taxes. In this light, voter disenfranchisement laws can be seen for what they are – purely punitive, a red F on the chest for “felon” that comes with all the responsibilities of citizenship but none of the privileges.

Former felons were prisoners, but they never stopped being people. We constantly call for society to speak up for prison reform, but if we immediately strip the voices and political power from the very people who have the most ethos to do so, we are hurting our chances of really understanding what might make a person commit a crime, and how to help others avoid the same fate.

And if you’re worried that newly-enfranchised voters will rush to the polls and check “yes” for decriminalizing murder and theft, well, the political system clearly doesn’t work like that.

When convicted, felons enter the Department of Corrections, not Condemnation. Floridians already did one thing right by signing the petition that put Amendment 4 on the ballot; now, do it again. Use your vote to help someone else get theirs.

Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.

January 29, 2018

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