Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Felons Struggle to Regain Civil Rights

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Felons Struggle to Regain Civil Rights

Article excerpt

Byline: Tia Mitchell, Times-Union staff writer

Jimmie Malone of Jacksonville can't understand why he is still being punished for a bar fight that happened in 1983.

Because of his felony conviction -- he was found guilty of assault and given two years' probation -- Malone and about 647,000 other felons living in the state cannot vote, hold office or apply for gun permits.

Of that number, about 1 in 10 -- 63,700 -- are still in prison.

Under state law, felons can have their civil rights restored through a clemency process administered by the Florida Parole Commission.

But if the criteria for restoration are not met, the commission begins a full clemency investigation. All information is presented to the clemency board, consisting of the governor and Cabinet. The board votes on whether the felon's rights will be restored.

Malone said he found out he didn't have full civil rights when he decided to apply for a gun permit. A friend told him he couldn't get a gun without first getting his rights restored.

But Malone and thousands of other felons face a delay in their requests for getting their rights restored.

Commission officials have estimated that by July 1, there will be a backlog of about 26,000 applications for restoration of civil rights. The commission is expecting to receive more than 33,000 new cases during the 2002-03 year, up from just under 20,000 during 2000-01.

The increase in applications is a result of several steps commission Chairman Jimmie Henry implemented to streamline the process. The application is now one page, and certified copies of court documents are no longer required. As of April, forms could be downloaded from the commission's Web site.

As a result, the commission is receiving 30 to 40 applications a day, compared to 15 to 20 a year ago. The backlog continues to increase and unprocessed applications date as far back as 2000.

Henry asked the Legislature to provide him an additional $2.5 million in the 2002-03 budget so he could hire dozens of people and erase the backlog. Instead, he received about $622,000.

Henry said the money is a start, but it won't be enough.

"We'll do the best we can with what they have graciously given us, but I don't see it erasing the backlog at this time," Henry said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and law enforcement officials continue to debate whether Florida's law that strips felons of their civil rights should change.

Only seven other states have laws that revoke felons' civil rights after the first conviction.

The law has long been criticized as an outdated remnant of legislation targeted to keep blacks from the polls. …

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