Civil Rights Restoration Workshop in Tampa

03/29/10 Concetta DeLuco
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On Saturday, a civil rights restoration workshop was held in West Tampa.

Civil rights are defined as the liberties given to every individual set forth by the U.S. Constitution. Joyce Hamilton Henry is a director with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which organized the event. She said an individual loses many valuable rights when a felony is committed.

They lose their right to vote; they lose their right to run for office, to serve on a jury, and in some cases they're unable to get a particular occupational license to get employment. So we encourage individuals to get their rights restored for that reason. And it also enables them to return to the community.

People showed up intermittently for the workshop, often straggling in one at a time. Those who were in attendance were shy to do an interview. Under the current rights restoration system set forth by Gov. Charlie Crist, civil liberties are automatically restored to those who commit level 1 or a less severe felony. Whereas, people who commit level 2 and 3 felonies have to apply to regain their rights. Henry said this confusion is part of the reason almost a million Floridians are disenfranchised. Many are intimidated by the system, and others don’t know their rights have already been restored.

Most often at levels 2 and 3, an individual must appear in front of the clemency board. And the clemency board meets quarterly, and they are looking at many cases during that time. And so it's a long process. We have the capacity today to go into the state clemency board's database to determine a person's status. If their name appears, this often means, means their rights are restored. One reason we're finding out is, there are many individuals out there whose rights were restored, but they did not know it. And they're very excited when they come here and find that out for the first time. We're concerned that the current system, as it exists, is cumbersome; it's inadequate. And so we are able to give them information about the process, get them started in the process, and give them the support needed to get their rights restored. But clearly, that's not enough. Because relatively speaking, it's like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Structurally, systemically, we need to fix the problem within the state of Florida.

Mike Pheneger of the ACLU said the rights restoration system was designed to be complicated. The intent is to delay ex-felons from re-obtaining their civil liberties, he said, but it is in society’s best interest to restore rights.

When all of a sudden, people have made mistakes in their lives, they also have to have the possibility of a second chance, and the ability to reintegrate into the community. The difficulty is that when it comes along, there's kind of a disincentive for doing this for some people's minds, because they're afraid they might restore the right to vote for people who might not, for example, vote for them, which is a real problem. But the people have paid their debt to society; they've paid their debt to society, and it's in our interest to reintegrate them—because, quite frankly, if they can get jobs, if they can get housing, they're much less likely to get back in trouble. But if they do get back in trouble, you can take their rights away from them again. And you don't really need to worry about this constant, lengthy, almost interminable process. It's made to be difficult, and it is.

Re-entry Cooperative of America was a co-sponsor of the event. Representing the cooperative, Quinton Robinson agrees with Pheneger. He said after committing a crime, a person should not have to serve a life sentence.

Personally, I don't believe that once a person has served their time, their sentence, that they should have a life sentence. And we believe that having your civil rights restored is an opportunity for that person to become a productive citizen in society again. I believe that once a person has their civil rights restored, they will probably do everything in their power to keep them.

In his platform before becoming governor, Crist was a staunch supporter of an improved rights restoration system. Since taking office, he has made changes that many at the workshop acknowledged, but argue are not enough. In suggesting a way to further better the current rights Restoration system, ACLU's Mike Pheneger said:

Governor Crist, get it done. It's time to take step two, and go on ahead.

To find out if your rights have been restored or to apply for restoration, visit this website.

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