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Doing time

Civil rights activists and ex-felons displeased with Florida's strict new clemency laws

Photo: Pooneh Ghana, License: N/A

Pooneh Ghana

Tallahassee-based civil rights attorney Mark Schlakman says that the new rules are retroactive. The commission’s current backlog of those awaiting rights restoration stood at 89,833 as of Aug. 1, and the Parole Commission must now mail letters to these ex-felons to explain the new process. “The clemency rules are unlike virtually any other set of rules that we have,” Schlakman says. “They are whatever the governor and cabinet want them to be at the time.”

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, notes that policy on rights restoration “bounces back and forth” between different governors – under Charlie Crist, for instance, some felons exiting prison were eligible for automatic rights restoration. “Your right to vote depends on who’s in office,” Simon says.

Attorney General Bondi has publicly defended the new rules, arguing that ex-felons should have to prove they can lead a crime-free life after prison. “She believes that rights of felons should be restored with the test of time,” says Bondi’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Davis.

In arguing against the new process, the St. Petersburg Times pointed to a recent study by the Parole Commission, which found that only 11.1 percent of people whose rights were restored in 2009 and 2010 had returned to Department of Corrections custody by May 31 of this year. The state’s overall recidivism rate, on the other hand, was last measured in 2009 at 33.1 percent.

But others argue it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison; the recidivism rate is based on a three-year window, while the subjects of the Parole Commission’s study had been out of prison for as little as five months. “You can spin it any way you want to,” says Jane Tillman, the Parole Commission’s communications director.

For Jessica Chiappone, however, there’s no need to cite disputed numbers. Instead, the mother of two makes a philosophical argument. “What is the prison sentence if it’s not meant to be punishment?” she says. “Should I be punished for the rest of my life?”

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