It’s been months since Attorney General Pam Bondi and members of the Florida cabinet voted to roll back the state’s policy of automatically restoring the civil rights of felons, but the changes are still drawing scrutiny from civil rights advocates concerned about the impact they will have on offenders’ right to vote and efforts to prevent them from reoffending.

Under the new rules, felons can no longer have their civil rights, including the right to vote, restored automatically once they complete their sentences. In most cases, they have to wait five years before they have a chance to begin applying to have their rights restored. Tens of thousands of people will now have to wait years before they can be granted the full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, sent a letter to the federal Justice Department late last week, arguing that the changes would have a “discriminatory impact” on minority voting rights. She said a raft of recent changes to state elections laws and the changes approved by the cabinet were “part of a device to eliminate certain individuals from the voting population.”

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office says that unlike the changes to state election laws, the changes to the rights restoration process do not have to be reviewed under the Voting Rights Act. Bondi says the new policy will help ensure that former offenders have reformed themselves and repaid their debts to society, and that she hopes the expanded time window will give the state’s Parole Commission a chance to clear its existing backlog of applications.

Critics of the new policy point to a recent report by the Parole Commission that found that the state’s recidivism rate, or the rate at which offenders wind up back in prison within three years of being released, was about 33 percent for the period between 2001 and 2008, while felons whose rights have been restored returned to custody at a rate of 11 percent from 2009 to 2010. The report (available below) does not offer a direct apples-to-apples comparison (for one thing, the time periods studied are different), but it does support the idea that reintegrating felons into society reduces their chances of reoffending.

Bondi says that’s why she backed a measure, which passed the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, that “decouples” the right to obtain professional licenses from the right to vote. The “decoupling” measure was aimed at helping former offenders find work after leaving prison.

Desmond Meade, a former offender and now president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, criticized the changes in an op-ed in Friday’s Orlando Sentinel:

Decoupling would be unnecessary if Florida would do what 47 other states already do and implement a simple, automatic path to the restoration of full civil rights for former offenders. An automatic system of rights restoration is certainly cheaper than the slow, cumbersome process Florida has now.

Florida remains stuck in the distant past. Even with a new decoupling law, Florida continues to move ever more backward on voting rights — placing true reintegration further from more and more citizens.

Ronald Bilbao of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida says the combined effects of new restrictions on voting, from the tougher clemency rules to tighter election laws, will be one of the themes when the Rights Restoration Coalition holds its annual gathering later this month in Orlando. He describes the decoupling of the right to obtain a professional license from other civil rights denied to felons as a minor victory amid a series of setbacks.

“Now you have people who are working and paying taxes, but not getting the right to vote,” he says.

Bondi says the decoupling provision is intended to improve offenders’ chances of reintegrating into society, but that her views on rights restoration more broadly were shaped during her years as a prosecutor.

“What we have to do is help people become productive members of society, but I still firmly believe that having your rights restored should be earned, not automatic,” she says.

Parole Commission Report

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