Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING
TALLAHASSEE -- More than 600,000 Florida felons won the automatic restoration of their civil rights Thursday with a sweeping vote by Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Cabinet.
Acting as the state clemency board, Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson voted to implement automatic restoration of civil rights to certain felons convicted of less-severe crimes and who meet certain requirements such as completing probation and paying restitution.
The rights being restored include the right to vote, serve on a jury, apply for a state occupational license and hold public office. Firearm rights are not automatically restored.
Florida now leaves a list of five Southern states that ban felons' rights for life. The others are Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Kentucky.
"If we believe people have paid their debt to society, then that debt should be considered paid in full, and their civil rights should be restored," said Crist, who campaigned on the issue during his run for governor last year.
The vote won wide, bipartisan praise -- the state Democratic and Republican parties both issued statements supporting the move.
But Attorney General Bill McCollum broke bitterly with Crist, Sink and Bronson in casting the lone vote against the proposal. McCollum, a Republican like Crist and Bronson, wanted a five-year waiting period before civil rights are restored for violent repeat offenders, as well as a study and evaluation of the move after three years. Both suggestions were defeated.
"That gives us a chance to see if they're going to continue as criminals," McCollum said. "Half of them do, and my concern is that these people could get work licenses and get into people's homes. I'm happy to restore rights for some felons but not for violent, career criminals."
The vote means felons who qualify for automatic pardons no longer have to apply for them. Those who commit more severe offenses such as murder or a sexual crime must still request a hearing before the state clemency board. Bronson also successfully pushed through an amendment that requires a clemency board review of the rights of any felon who is rearrested.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said 628,000 felons throughout the state could be affected, although that number includes felons who have recently died, moved out of state or been rearrested. …