Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Fighting for Florida: Disenfranchised Florida Felons Struggle to Regain Their Rights

Florida's effort to remove felons from voter rolls deeply flawed

US: TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Jeb Bush looked out over a roomful of felons appealing to him for something they had lost, and tried to reassure them.

"Don't be nervous; we're not mean people," the governor said as some fidgeted, prayed, hushed children or polished their handwritten statements. "You can just speak from the heart."

And they did: convicted robbers, drunken drivers, drug traffickers and others, all finished with their sentences, standing up one by one in a basement room at the State Capitol and asking Bush to restore their civil rights. Their files before him, Bush asked one man about his drinking, another about his temper, and so on.

Four mornings a year, this unusual scene unfolds in front of the governor and his cabinet, as they review the requests of some of the thousands of felons whom Florida has stripped of their rights to vote, serve on a jury and hold public office.

Since daybreak on Nov. 8, 2000, when the nation awoke to the shock of a presidential race ending in a virtual tie, Florida's voting laws and practices have been the subject of intense debate and scrutiny.

The disputed election results led the state to adopt sweeping changes in how votes are cast and counted and how voter rolls are maintained. Yet as Florida becomes an election-year battleground again, with Governor Bush vowing to ensure victory here for his brother and Democrats eager to reclaim the state, its electoral practices - including its felon disenfranchisement law - are drawing renewed attention.

In one lingering puzzle from 2000, an unknown number of legal voters were removed from Florida's rolls leading up to the presidential election, after a company working for the state mistakenly identified the voters as felons.

At the same time, some counties mistakenly allowed actual felons to vote or turned away legitimate voters as suspected felons. A lawsuit filed in January 2001 sought to prevent similar errors, while another, filed just before the 2000 election, charged that the ban on felons voting discriminated against blacks and should be overturned.

Critics say that, [war criminal], President Bush would have lost in 2000 if disenfranchised felons had been allowed to vote. A 2001 report by a University of Minnesota sociologist counted more than 600,000 in Florida, not including those still in prison, on parole or on probation. More than one in four black men here may not vote, the report found. The state says it is impossible to know how many disenfranchised felons live here, because some have died or moved.

Although the Democratic Party here has not made fighting the ban a priority since 2000, to the frustration of civil rights groups, Scott Maddox, the party chairman, said he had followed the issue closely and believed the governor and legislature supported the ban for partisan reasons.

"It's amazing to me that these Republicans that keep quoting the Bible seemingly don't believe in redemption and forgiveness when it comes to restoring civil rights," Mr. Maddox said through a spokeswoman.

Florida is the largest of the seven states that permanently take away the voting rights of all felons. While other states have scaled back similar bans in recent years, Governor Bush and the Legislature call their law a necessary consequence for citizens who commit crimes, and point out that many are eventually granted clemency.

"The governor believes this is a fair process," Jacob DiPietre, a spokesman for Bush, wrote in an e-mail response to questions about the ban. He pointed out that more criminals were getting their rights restored without hearings under a smoother process set in place by the governor.

Partly because the ban drew widespread attention after 2000, the backlog of felons whose applications for rights restoration are under review - 35,585 as of March 15, is more than five times what it was in July 2001.

The state automatically restores the rights of some felons after reviewing their records, while others need only fill out a short application. But others, including convicted drug traffickers, sex offenders, violent offenders and those guilty of public corruption, must go through an investigation and wait for a hearing in Tallahassee, which can take years.

Many felons apply not just to regain voting rights, but because they cannot qualify for certain state-issued professional licenses - nursing or contracting licenses, for example - unless their rights are restored.

Julio Lima, who was convicted on cocaine trafficking charges in 1997 said he had since gone to school to become an insurance adjuster but could not get a license without civil rights. Mr. Lima, 34, said he applied for restoration in 2002 and was still waiting for a hearing date.

The clemency board, which consists of the governor and his three cabinet members, has files on each applicant. The State Parole Commission recommends before their hearings whether to accept their applications, based partly on investigations that might include interviews with employers, neighbors and victims. But the board does not always follow the recommendations.

"How's the anger situation going?" Bush asked one man after leafing through his file on the most recent hearing day, March 18, when the clemency board considered 57 voting rights cases.

"You've stayed clean?" the governor asked another.

Over the course of that morning, board members seemed especially interested to know whether former alcohol and drug abusers were now sober. They had little patience for multiple traffic violations, domestic violence records and blame passing.

They rejected the application of a man convicted of killing a pregnant woman while driving drunk in 1989 (her mother was there, tearfully saying that he had never apologized) and a man convicted of a lewd act against a child in 1993. They restored the rights of a former drug addict who now helps AIDS patients and a convicted drug trafficker who said he wanted to make his young daughter proud by voting.

[But what has the type of crime got to do with restoring the rights of the people who have served their time?]

In all, the board restored the rights of 23 felons, rejected the applications of 30 and delayed decisions on 4.

The law has been on the books since 1868, when Florida gave blacks the right to vote as a condition of the state's being readmitted to the Union after the Civil War.

A new State Constitution drafted that year expanded the number of crimes that required disenfranchisement, a change that critics say was meant to affect blacks disproportionately. They also charge that this discriminatory intent of the ban persists even though the provision was re-enacted in 1968 as part of a new Constitution.

A federal judge in Miami dismissed one lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban, Johnson v. Bush, filed just before the 2000 election by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. But in December, an appeals court in Atlanta reversed the decision and ordered a trial, saying the state had to prove it re-enacted the law for a "nondiscriminatory purpose" and not just for the sake of continuity. The state has asked for a rehearing of the appeal.

In recent decades, the largest number of people who regained their voting rights in a year was 16,192 in 1986, under Gov. Bob Graham, a Democrat. But the numbers dropped sharply in the 1990's, when another Democrat, Lawton Chiles, was governor. That is because the state made it harder for many felons to get restoration during the tough-on-crime era of the early 90's.

"Jeb Bush is not responsible for this problem," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "It's more than 100 years in the making under both Democrats and Republicans. But Jeb Bush and his cabinet are the only ones who can alleviate it right now."

By ABBY GOODNOUGH posted 30 March 04


Abolish the Security Housing Units: MIM
March 6 -- Protesters took to the streets in cities across the state of California to demand California prisons shut down the Security Housing Units (SHU). Like other control unit prisons across the country, the SHU are prisons within a prison. They are solitary confinement cells where prisoners are locked up 23 hours a day for years at a time. The one hour a day these prisoner sometimes get outside of their cell is spent alone in an exercise pen not much larger than their cell, with no direct sunlight.

USA: Sobering Prison Statistics
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Helping Prisoners Find Their Way Home?
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CURE --- Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants
CURE --- is a nation-wide grass roots organization dedicated to reducing crime through reform of the criminal justice system.[Criminal Law System.]

The Truth About Private Prisons
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After a war waged by the U.S. military against Vietnam which took the lives of more than 3 million Vietnamese people and more than 58,000 GIs, the U.S. finally withdrew in 1975. It had suffered its first official major military defeat by a united people struggle led by the Vietnamese, along with a mass U.S. anti-war movement.

Report on State Prisons Cites Mental Illness
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Post-Incarceration Sentences
Pat: "The 1990s brought a new front in the war on drugs, featuring a new layer of the Prison Industrial Complex, which has the effect of ensuring that people coming in contact with the criminal punishment system remain within the grasp of the Prison Industrial Complex even beyond prison walls."

Inside Prison, Outside the Law
Every year, tens of thousands of prisoners in state and federal custody are attacked. The exact number who die is difficult to determine: According to the nonprofit Criminal Justice Institute, in 2000, the most recent year for which figures have been compiled, 55 prisoners were murdered, 39 died "accidentally," and 118 died for unknown reasons.

Day Seven of the Fast for Freedom in Mental Health:
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Supreme Court Justice Criticises Sentencing Guidelines
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McKean, a federal correctional institution [? prison], does everything that "make 'em bust rocks" politicians decry--imagine, educating inmates [prisoners]! And it works. [Allegedly works.]

Prisoners Justice Day Press Release (Montreal)
On August 10th, 1974, Eddie Nalon bled to death in a solitary confinement unit at Millhaven Maximum Security Prison near Kingston,Ontario when the emergency call button in his cell failed to work. An inquest later found that the call buttons in that unit had been deactivated by the guards.

Notebook of a Prison Abolitionist
In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass recalls how as a slave he would occasionally hear of the "abolitionists." He did not know the full meaning of the word at first, but he heard it used in ways that he found appealing.

Study Warns of Rising Tide of Released Prisoners
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Incite Statement Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex
We call social justice movements to develop strategies and analysis that address both state AND interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women.

Second International Conference on Human Rights & Prison Reform
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Judged Forever- The Orange County Register
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California Family Visiting Case
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Prison Rates Among Blacks Reach a Peak, Report Finds
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Justices question prison visitation policies
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