State is chipping away at 100,000-case backlog
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published September 27th 2007 in St. Petersburg Times
TALLAHASSEE - Nearly six months after Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet made it easier for some felons to regain their civil rights, the system is choked by a backlog of more than one hundred thousand cases awaiting review.
Tensions between two state agencies that screen ex-offenders, the Department of Corrections and the Florida Parole Commission, are exacerbating the delay because of disagreements over which inmates qualify for review.
"This just highlights the shortcomings of these new rules," said Muslima Lewis, an attorney with the ACLU and director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. "They're so cumbersome, so bureaucratic and so prone to human error that some of the efficiencies we hoped for are not going to be seen."
Since April 5, when the state allowed many non-violent ex-felons to regain their rights without going through a tedious clemency process, about 17,000 inmates have been released from state prison.
Nearly half of that total automatically regained rights that allow them to vote, run for office, serve on a jury and apply for dozens of state-issued licenses. Their cases were resolved immediately because the offenders committed non-violent crimes and did not owe restitution to victims.
They include Krista Terry, 28, of Tampa, who served time for drug offenses. She said she got a job as a legal assistant at a law firm in part because she presented a copy of a certificate restoring her civil rights.
"Employers tend to look upon it more favorably that you've got your civil rights restored," Terry said. "I beg more employers to just give people a chance."
Other felons who did time for more serious crimes, from aggravated stalking to manslaughter, must be investigated and ultimately approved by the Governor and the Cabinet. Murderers and sex offenders are not eligible for faster review under the new system.
All told, the Florida Parole Commission says 34,444 felons have had their rights restored under the new rules since April 5, far more than in any previous six-month period.
But for tens of thousands of former inmates, many released from prison years earlier, the wait goes on. The prison system identified a total of 298,000 ex-inmates eligible for review under the new rules.
On a regular basis, the Department of Corrections sends a list of eligible ex-inmates.
That list goes to the Parole Commission, an agency that has repeatedly survived efforts by legislators to abolish it.
The Parole Commission determines each former inmate's eligibility under the new rules - has the inmate paid restitution, does he have any outstanding warrants or committed new crimes - then makes recommendations to the governor and Cabinet.
The commission says it processes about 7,000 cases a month. The prison system says about 3,000 new people are released every month, so at that rate it would take years to resolve the pending cases.
"There are always fits and starts when you undertake a new process," Corrections Secretary James McDonough said. "It's an intricate process."
Crist and the Cabinet have the final say on old clemency petitions, applications for gun ownership and requests for pardons or commutations of sentence. They meet as the Board of Executive Clemency four times a year.
"It can always be better," Crist said. "We continue to chip away at it and work at it. It's a new day in Florida."
Not quite, say advocates for ex-offenders, who see the changes as incremental and insufficient.
Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute says the restitution requirement is a Catch-22 that prevents them from becoming productive citizens.
"If you can't get your civil rights restored, you can't get a job. And if you can't pay off the restitution, you can't get your civil rights restored," Berg said. "In essence, nothing has really changed."
Florida had long been regarded as among the most hostile states in granting full citizenship to people convicted of felonies. The requirement that ex-felons petition the state for basic civil rights dated to the Reconstruction era after the Civil War.
Corrections chief McDonough said about 200 officers were trained to review old cases to weed out ex-felons who have died or moved away, committed new crimes or simply shouldn't have been listed in the first place.
McDonough's goal was to process every case in time for all eligible ex-offenders to vote in the presidential primary Jan. 29.
That's not likely.
McDonough's staff does an initial screening of ex-inmates and sends lists to the Parole Commission, but in the two latest reports the parole agency found as many as one-third of the cases on the prisons' lists should not be there.
"I do not understand your error rate of 28.8%," corrections staffer Tina Hayes wrote in an Aug. 20 e-mail to parole officials.
More than two weeks later, she wrote in a follow-up message: "If the error rate is going up as stated then this is the more reason I need the error messages" to explain the mistakes.
Yet while the system still creaks along much too slowly for some, it still produces many happy endings for others, such as James Avery, a 39-year-old Lakeland truck driver who applied six years ago.
In 1992 Avery was convicted of attempted armed robbery of a Canadian tourist, resisting arrest without violence and fleeing an officer on a Hollywood beach.
"I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and had the wrong friends," Avery said as he apologized for his actions.
"It's good that you're here today," Crist told Avery as he made a motion to wipe away the conviction and restore all his rights, including owning a gun.
Later, holding her husband's certificate of pardon, Wanda Avery said: "We came here hoping and praying, but we didn't expect this at all."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or 850 224-7263.
A THREE-TIERED SYSTEM
Ex-offenders seeking to regain their civil rights in Florida now fall into one of three categories:
LEVEL 1:automatic restoration for non-violent offenders who completed all terms of a sentence, including payment of restitution to victims.
LEVEL 2:Investigation required of violent offenders, who committed crimes ranging from aggravated stalking to computer pornography to manslaughter. Clemency board approval required.
LEVEL 3: Full investigation, hearings required for those convicted of murder and sex offenses. Restitution required.
Source: Governor's Office