Representatives from two civil rights groups met Attorney General Pam Bondi Wednesday, asking her to avoid turning back the clock on “the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.”
Dale Landry of the NAACP and Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union called on Bondi to reverse her decision to end the practice of automatically restoring the rights of nonviolent felons, begun in Florida under former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Bondi agreed with them on one point: Felons should be able to obtain professional licenses once they complete their sentences, which Landry said would improve their chances of getting back to work, and reduce their likelihood of returning to prison.
Encouraging offenders to return to normal lives is a key part of the “right on crime” approach favored by advisers to Gov. Rick Scott, which aims to get former offenders back on their feet in an effort to reduce their chances of committing further crimes. Over time, that can reduce the strain on the state’s prison system and save taxpayers money.
“Right now the recidivism is at a crisis level, and it’s driving up corrections budgets,” said Simon, who passed around printouts highlighting cost-saving recommendations from Scott’s criminal justice advisers.
Requiring former offenders to navigate a state bureaucracy before they can have their rights restored would also waste money and resources, Simon said. Right now, some 100,000 offenders, many of them nonviolent, are in line for approval by the state clemency board.
The question, according to Landry, is whether the right to obtain an occupational license and return to work should be separated from the right to participate in the political system.
Bondi issued a statement last week saying that former offenders should have to prove themselves, and complete a mandatory waiting period, before having their rights restored. “The restoration of civil rights for any felon must be earned, it is not an entitlement,” she said.
Bondi announced after Wednesday’s meeting that she does favor removing the right to obtain an occupational license from that process:
I believe both parties can agree that we would like to do what we can to ensure that occupational licensure is not tied to the restoration of civil rights. In my view, the clemency process is a poor substitute for ensuring public safety through a personalized, thorough vetting of an applicant by the appropriate licensing authority.
Bondi said in her earlier statement that the new rules will likely be on the agenda during an upcoming special meeting of the state clemency board, which includes members of Florida’s cabinet.
“We made gains in civil rights, and now they’re trying to turn back the clock,” said the NAACP’s Landry.