In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist wanted to overhaul the process for restoring civil rights to convicted felons. These included serving on juries, running for political office, obtaining an occupational license and most importantly voting. At the time, Crist’s office estimated that 515,000 former felons were eligible.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Crist said, “I believe in appropriate punishment. I’m Chain Gang Charlie. When somebody has paid their debt to society, it is paid in full. … But punishment should never be confused with revenge. We should be able to find it in our hearts to forgive.”
The governor’s commitment seems to be waning. Crist needs to support his promise financially. The Parole Commission, which is responsible for processing the felons, has endured the largest budget cut of any criminal justice agency in Florida. The state auditor general discovered sloppiness and errors in the Parole Commission’s work during a review last month because of a lack of personnel.
The review found that it would take a full year for 71 caseworkers to eliminate the backlog of pending cases. The Parole Commission’s budget request for an additional 20 workers to alleviate the workload was rejected by the governor’s office last month.
Planning to run in the Florida senatorial race, Crist is promoting his fiscal conservatism at the cost of his promise to overhaul the clemency process. Many Republicans opposed the changes, and running on the Republican ticket for the Senate seat may have influenced Crist’s reasoning.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush opposed granting rights to felons, and Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican, voted against and criticized the changes in 2007, according to the Palm Beach Post.
“I think it’s a very liberal thing we did today,” said McCollum in 2007. “We’re putting a lot of felons back into the voting booth, back into the jury room and back into your home. I just think that’s a very terrible thing to do. I’m angry because I believe the people of Florida are losing a very valuable protection.”
Banning felons’ rights has disenfranchised a disproportionate number of blacks. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People estimates that one out of every eight black men have lost their right to vote because of felony voting bans.
The U.S. Department of Justice found that in 2004, blacks made up 38 percent of felony convictions but accounted for 12 percent of the adult U.S. population.
According to exit polls, nine out of every 10 blacks voted for Al Gore, the Democratic Party presidential candidate in the 2000 general election. In 2008, President Barack Obama won Florida with the support of 73 percent of black voters.
The Republican Party may be worried about the consequences of restoring rights to more blacks. Perhaps the thought of a large turnout of formerly disenfranchised voters who may vote for his opponent is the real reason Crist is hesitant to restore necessary rights. It’s time for him to live up to what he says.
Justin Rivera is a senior majoring in history.