Florida Shifts Stance on Ex-Convicts’ Civil Rights
April 5, 2007
Michele Norris talks with Charles Bronson, Florida’s Agricultural Commissioner and a member of its Board of Clemency, about his vote today to automatically restore civil rights to some non-violent ex-convicts. Until today, Florida was among just a handful of states that withheld civil rights from people who had served their prison sentences.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Felons in Florida who have done their time will now have the right to vote. The state clemency board approved the rule change today despite strong objections from some state officials, including Florida’s attorney general. Florida is one of a handful of states where criminals convicted of felonies do not automatically regain the right to vote, serve on a jury, or apply for a professional license once they’re released.
Under Florida’s new rules, former prisoners will need to make full restitution for any court costs or fines before they’re allowed to vote. Murderers and other violent offenders will still need to petition the clemency board to have their rights restored.
Charles Bronson serves on Florida’s clemency board. He’s also the state’s agricultural commissioner, and he joins us now from Tallahassee. Mr. Bronson, welcome to the program.
Mr. CHARLES BRONSON (Florida Board of Executive Clemency): Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be on.
NORRIS: Now the four members of the commission voted three to one today to approve this rule change. From what I understand, yours was not an automatic yes vote. What were your concerns at the outset and why did you ultimately decide to back the change?
Mr. BRONSON: Well, my concerns all along have been the violent criminals. I wanted to make sure that those individuals had to come before the clemency board to give us a chance to ask the questions: Are you going to do this again? Are you ready to go back in society? And those types of things before we grant those rights back to them.
NORRIS: Now while deliberating this, the board got a very strong admonition from the state attorney general in an op-ed piece that appeared in several papers across the state. He said that automatically restoring civil rights for felons was irresponsible, and he said it was reckless, and he said it would be better to have some sort of waiting period to determine if felons are truly rehabilitated or if they’re still leading a life of crime. Why not have that kind of waiting period?
Mr. BRONSON: Well, we’ve had that waiting period in the past, and the attorney general’s correct. Roughly 50 percent of felons who get out will re-offend and go back in. You know, I said if I was Solomon and I could tell you who those 50 percent were, it’d make it easy for me to make a better determination. But I didn’t feel that lumping all 100 percent of the people, those 50 percent that do want to go back in society and do the right things, I didn’t think they needed to be punished along with those who were going to re-offend. And those people are going to re-offend anyway, whether we give them their rights back or not, and they’re going to be put back into prison again.
NORRIS: Now when we talk about restoring a former felon’s civil rights, what will they then be allowed to do? Could you help us walk through that?
Mr. BRONSON: Well, the automatic civil rights will give them the right to vote; and under the circumstances of applying for licenses where they need a license to operate, in some cases they’ll be able to get licenses. There are a number of licenses for those who handle bank stocks and trading issues and things like that that they will not be able to apply for.
NORRIS: But if they wanted to apply for a license to work as a beautician or a barber or a roofer, they could apply for those licenses?
Mr. BRONSON: Yes. There are certain licenses that will be allowable.
NORRIS: What about the right to buy or own a gun?
Mr. BRONSON: No. A person who’s been convicted of a felony has to come back before the board and request their gun rights.
NORRIS: What kind of numbers are we talking about? How many former prisoners could potentially gain the right to vote or serve on a jury under this new law?
Mr. BRONSON: Well, you know, I’ve heard everything from around 30,000 people. Of course, there’s over 900-and-some-odd-thousand people who are on a list as to being potentially given their rights back. Many of those are going to be violent offenders that have to come before the full commission anyway. So the actual number is hard to tell.
NORRIS: Would this take effect immediately? Could these former felons, for instance, vote in the next presidential election?
Mr. BRONSON: Oh, yes. I think the majority of these numbers are going to – or at least those who are qualified now will be eligible to vote in the next election.
NORRIS: Mr. Bronson, thank you very much for your time.
Mr. BRONSON: Thank you.
NORRIS: Charles Bronson is a member of the Florida Clemency Board.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.