TALLAHASSEE -- Most Florida felons will regain voting and other civil rights more quickly after completing their sentences under changes approved yesterday by the governor and the state clemency board.
All but the most violent felons can now avoid waiting for a board hearing, a process that sometimes takes years. Along with regaining the right to vote, felons can now more quickly serve on juries and get licensed for many occupations, a key concern of activists. The right to have a firearm still wouldn't be automatically restored.
Felon civil rights drew attention after the disputed 2000 presidential election, when many nonconvicts were purged from voter rolls because of rampant errors in the state's prison database.
Florida was one of three states, along with Kentucky and Virginia, that require former felons to take action to restore their civil rights no matter how long they've been out of prison. Other states have waiting periods before restoration; most restore rights automatically when felons complete their sentence.
Under the change, which takes effect immediately, Florida officials will automatically begin the rights-restoration process for felons when they finish their sentences. People who previously completed sentences but are still awaiting restoration of their rights will still have to apply on their own because most are not tracked by the state after their release.
The change was urged by Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican who was elected in November. His predecessor, Jeb Bush, had long opposed changing the ban.
"I believe in simple human justice and that when somebody has paid their debt to society, it is paid in full," Crist said yesterday. "There's a time to move on, a time to give them an opportunity to have redemption, to have a chance to become productive citizens."
The state continues to require those convicted of murder and other violent felons to go before the board for a hearing or undergo a review. Felons must also pay all court-ordered restitution to their victims before becoming eligible to get their rights back.