By DOTTY NIST
The Walton County Democratic Women’s Club was joined by members of the Democratic Black Caucus of Walton County and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for a June 7 luncheon meeting at Freeport Community Center. Attendees heard from featured speaker Dale Boswell about the challenges that felons face in having their civil rights restored after release from incarceration.
Florida is one of only three states that strip people with past felony convictions of their civil rights, even after they have completed their sentences.
Boswell, spoke to the gathering about the work and goals of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC). This non-partisan statewide organization works in concert with groups all over the state and nation toward achieving automatic restoration of felons’ civil rights upon completion of their sentences, as is the practice in the vast majority of states.
Boswell discussed his reason for getting involved in this cause. “I have never been convicted or charged with any crime in my life;” he explained, “I do what I do because I believe it is the right thing to do.” The Pensacola native is a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran.
When Florida convicted felons finish their sentences and are released, they may think they are free, Boswell emphasized, “they are not.”
He noted there had been progress in this area during the administration of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. In 2007, Crist and his Cabinet had approved immediate restoration of rights for nonviolent offenders upon completion of their sentences and had agreed to allow most of those who had committed violent crimes to apply immediately upon release to regain their rights.
Four years later, Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet approved revised rules, negating the gains made under Crist, Boswell reported.
Today, he explained, in Florida all felons must wait from five to seven years after their release to be able to apply for restoration of their rights. Applications take approximately five years to go through, he said, and then they are subject to consideration by the Executive Clemency Board, which may or may not approve an application. The board, which is composed of the governor and Cabinet, meets four times a year.
“In Florida, we have 1.5 million disfranchised people, approximately 60 percent of whom are black,” Boswell revealed.
In the last two years of Crist’s administration, Boswell told attendees, the rights of more than 30,000 felons were restored. In comparison, he said, the rights of only 254 felons were restored during Scott’s first two years in office.
Not only does non-restoration of civil rights keep those with past felony convictions from voting, they are also barred from serving on juries and from holding public office. In some cases non-restoration also subjects them to discrimination in seeking jobs and housing, and may prevent them from obtaining professional licensing or funding to pursue their education.
In many cases, Boswell explained, felons who are unable to get their rights restored find that they have no choice but to “go back to what got them arrested in the first place.”
In contrast, he revealed, of the 30,672 felons who had their rights restored in 2009 and 2010, only 3,406 were reincarcerated.
Boswell estimated that taxpayers would be saved over $11 billion over a 20-year period with restoration of past offenders’ rights, due to these individuals’ increased ability to successfully re-enter their communities and avoid recidivism.
From those cost savings could come funds to rehabilitate those with past felonies, Boswell suggested.
He urged for citizens to contact their legislators with this information. “That’s the key…they want to hear about dollars and cents,” he said.
“The question is, how do we restore common sense?” commented Rev. Tyrone Broadus of the Black Caucus.
Attendees agreed to initiate a joint project of the Walton County Democratic Women, the Democratic Black Caucus, and the ACLU to petition the governor to restore the rights of felons who had served their sentences.
The June 7 meeting was the first under the leadership of new Walton County Democratic Women’s Club President Karen McGee, and Johnnie Riley-White received a plaque in recognition of her long-time service as club membership chair.