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Thursday, Oct 30, 2014
Columnists

O’Neill: No automatic rights restoration for felons

Special correspondent
Published:

This will sound less than fair to some, but I’m not in favor of the automatic restoration of civil rights to felons who have completed their sentences. Despite what some editorial boards posit, despite what the Legislative Black Caucus urges, despite what Chris Matthews blathers or Rachel Maddow opines.

Having said that, however, let me back up for perspective.

Two years ago, Florida’s Clemency Board (aka Scott, Bondi & Co.) adopted new – totally un-Charlie Crist-like – rules for released felons. They overreacted. Instead of the streamlined, often automatic, process initiated under Crist (in 2007), there was now a bureaucratic maze requiring felons to wait five to seven years after finishing their sentences before even applying for a return of civil rights. It’s hardly happenstance that in 2007 39,000 felons regained their rights. In 2011, 78 did.

This isn’t right, but that’s what we got from Florida’s Ideology Board. The reality is that most felons don’t stay locked up in jail. And serious impediments to reintegration into the general population have a notable societal downside. It’s called recidivism. According to the Florida Parole Commission, the recidivism rate is three times less among those who have had their rights restored.

What Florida needs to do is return to sensibly streamlining the process for felons (with allowances for violent and nonviolent offenders) – not because we believe in benevolence, but because it’s in society’s enlightened self interest to do so. But it should not be automatic. It shouldn’t come with mustering out and the return of personal effects. It should be earned – but without counterproductively long waiting periods that confer a frustrating, “stateless” sort of status.

Two key points need to be underscored.

It’s hard to argue with the contention that those who have paid their debt to society should now automatically regain all rights – including the right to vote, hold elected office and serve on juries. Well, it’s hard, but it’s not impossible. “Paid their debt” is one of those catch phrases –like “right to choose” and “choose life” – that has subplots to it.

A plea deal, for example, may have resulted in a reduced (debt) sentence. Expedient legal stuff happens. There is also the victim factor, depending on the crime. Even after “closure,” there is no unscarring of the scarred. If a victim is not made whole, how has that societal debt been squared away? Literally, how can it ever be?

Obviously, there are as many inherent limits and variables as there are felons and felonies. Enough so that nothing should be automatic – as in the blanket restoration of rights, enough so that the passive serving of a required sentence isn’t equated with actually “earning” something. It’s not inappropriate to want further proof of “reform,” both as an inmate and as an ex-prisoner. It’s fair as well as prudent to ask for a good-faith track record, however defined, for whatever reasonable time frame. Perhaps a calendar year after release.

But that Board of Ideology’s extended waiting period and hoop jumping isn’t fair – either to felons trying to start over or to the rest of us who have them in our midst.

The other point. This issue is necessarily seen through the lens of racial disenfranchisement. If it affects a disproportionate number of minorities, goes the rationale, it is – ipso facto – a form of racial discrimination. Not always the case.

For example, in 2010 about 500,000 African-Americans – or 23 percent of the state’s black voting age population – could not vote because of a felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based criminal justice reform group. The data lead to various conclusions – and at least one rhetorical question: Don’t you have to be a criminal before you can be a nonvoting “disenfranchised” felon?

Don’t we need to address that skewed incarceration rate, which adversely impacts society, before tackling the restoration of felons’ rights?

Much has been made of the fact that Roger Dearing makes more than Rick Scott, the governor of Florida. That’s because Dearing, who you’ve likely never heard of, is the executive director of the Florida High School Athletic Association. He takes home $151,000 a year. The state allots Scott $130,000.

It might seem a blatantly skewed priority to be allocating the Sunshine State’s (salary-declining) governor an amount that is less than someone who leads an organization of 29 employees doing work that is arguably far less important than that of a megastate’s chief executive.

This sort of bizarre juxtaposition harkens back to a certain celebrated salary comparison for relevant context. The year was 1930. Babe Ruth was coming off a 1929 season in which he hit 46 home runs, knocked in 154 runs and had a .345 batting average. He signed with the Yankees for an unprecedented $80,000. President Herbert Hoover, who made $75,000, was coming off a relatively depressing experience.

When baited with a question about the disparity between an athlete’s salary and that of the president of the United States, Ruth was famously quick on his brutally candid retort. “I know,” he acknowledged, “but I had a better year than Hoover.”

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