A report released earlier this month by the NAACP found that Florida is among the states with the “most restrictive” felon disenfranchisement “laws in the country” — one of many aspects of the state’s voting practices that will limit voter participation among minorities, according to the group.
The subject of voting rights in the U.S. has received renewed attention since sweeping changes to voting laws were passed in states across the country. Voting rights advocates in Florida have largely focused on new limitations on third-party voter registration, early voting days and ballot measure signatures. Little scrutiny, however, has been given to a rollback of voting rights for ex-offenders, also referred to as returning citizens.
According to the NAACP report (.pdf), Florida is one of only four states in the country that “denies the right to vote permanently to all individuals convicted of any felony offense.”
The NAACP reports:
Florida imposed a mandatory five-year waiting period and petition process for the restoration of rights for individuals who have completed their sentences. In March 2011, Florida, which already had the largest disfranchised population of any state in the country (approximately 1 million), rolled back state rules enacted four years ago that eliminated the post-sentence waiting period and provided for automatic approval of reinstatement of rights for individuals convicted of non-violent felony offenses.
The previous rule was put into effect in 2007, allowing the restoration of rights to more than 154,000 people who had completed their sentences.
Under Florida’s new rules, all individuals who have completed their sentences, even those for non-violent offenses, must wait at least five years before they may petition the Clemency Board for the restoration of their civil rights, including the right to register to vote. Some offenders even have a mandatory seven-year period before they may petition.
Even worse, the five–year waiting period for individuals convicted of a non-violent offense to apply for restoration of voting rights resets if a person is simply arrested for a criminal offense—even if charges are eventually dropped or the person is acquitted of all allegations.
By most accounts, these new clemency rules make Florida’s the most restrictive felon disfranchisement approach in the country.
Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and a self-described “formerly convicted individual,” says that blame for the state’s poor voting rights for returning citizens goes “beyond political reasons.”
“This is more than just politically motivated,” Meade tells The Florida Independent. “These policies have been pushed by the prison industrial complex.”
According to Meade, private prison companies are “big campaign donors” that benefit from policies that limit former inmates’ rights.
“That’s how they make their money,” Meade says. According to Meade, keeping ex-offenders from having a say in political affairs limits proper accountability for legislators and institutions such as prisons — whether they are public or private. He also says that private prison companies have long lobbied for restricted rights of former inmates. As their influence grows, Meade argues, the rights of returning citizens shrink.
The power of private prisons in Florida has become increasingly visible in the past few years. According to reporting by The American Independent’s Yana Kunichoff:
GEO Group, the second-largest private prison operator in the country, is headquartered in Florida, and is already running the state’s largest private prison, the Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton. When the Corrections Corporation of America builds the largest private immigration center in the country, as it agreed with the town of Southwest Ranches and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to do earlier this year, Florida will become ground zero for private prisons.
The situation in Florida isn’t unique, but advocates say the scale of Florida’s plan is remarkable.
“It’s precedent-setting,” says Ken Kopczynski, executive director of the Private Corrections Working Group, a website that collects news and resources on the growing influence of the private prison industry.
Kopczynski says the proposed budget amendment and the planned ICE-contracted center “is the largest privatization effort in the U.S., if not in the world.”
The industry, Kunichoff wrote, has relied “on the goodwill of legislators” and groups such as the GEO Group have given hundreds of thousands in campaign donations to the Republican Party of Florida.
Meade says state policy-makers have favored prison companies, while simultaneously disregarding the rights of offenders and former offenders.
“We definitely feel that they are implementing their policies just to show they are being ‘tough on crime,’” Meade says, something he says this is done at the expense of actually “reducing and preventing crime.”
“This is all contrary to public safety,” Meade says. “There is no evidence that giving voting rights to returning citizens will negatively effect a community.”
He describes the rollback as an effort to block “people’s access to the polls.”
According to Meade, the new House Bill 4129 — which was introduced by state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, last month — would “create yet another obstacle.” According to a summary of the bill, 4129 would repeal a “provision that prohibits clerk or inspector from asking elector to provide additional information or recite elector’s home address after presenting picture identification that matches elector’s address in supervisor of elections’ records.”
“That is crazy,” Meade says. “I guess volunteers will decide who votes now.”