‘Society Will Not Let Me Forget’

James Auck is among 1.5 million Floridians who will be unable to vote in November because their civil rights haven’t been restored after being convicted of a felony.

Nineteen years after walking out of jail after serving nine months for worthless check charges, Auck cannot vote, own a gun, serve on a jury or hold public office.

“It’s just a nightmare. Society will not let me forget,” said Auck, who believes he has paid his debt to society and is being discriminated against because he made mistakes two decades ago. His problems, he said, were fueled by drug and alcohol addiction.

According to Auck, 48, he’s turned his life around, owns his own home and a pressure-washing business and would like to vote, but his efforts to get his rights restored have been a bureaucratic nightmare. Duval County court documents show some minor and traffic offenses. Records and documents of the clemency process are closed to the public.

At the heart of the issue is the nation’s most restrictive system for restoration of civil rights for ex-felons.

“It seems rather hopeless to me,” he said.

In a study released in July, The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit organization engaged in research and advocacy in criminal justice issues, estimated that more than 7 percent of the adult population in Florida cannot vote because of a former felony conviction.

In the 2010 election, 20 percent of African Americans in Florida could not vote because of felony convictions, according to The Sentencing Project report.

“In 2010, more people were disenfranchised in Florida than any other state, and Florida’s disenfranchisement rate remains highest among the 50 states,” the report stated.

There are 5.85 million Americans who are forbidden to vote because of “felony disenfranchisement,” according to the report.

Auck served nine months in prison for writing a series of bad checks in 1993. Despite having letters from the prison system, Walmart and a check service saying he owes no money, the Duval County Clerk of Courts says he owes $153 and 12 years’ interest, bringing the total to $1,500.

His efforts to contact with the Florida Parole Commission and Florida Clemency Board have fallen on deaf ears, and he said he cannot afford an attorney.

“They gave Jim Morrison a pardon after he had been dead for 40 years. I need clemency and a pardon now.”

Auck credits Alcoholics Anonymous for his transformation into what he says is a “model citizen.”

The right to vote is an issue Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland deals with daily.

In a full-page ad in The Florida Times-Union on Sept. 11, Holland printed the names and last-known addresses of more than 200 people who are in danger of losing their rights because they have been convicted of a felony or are mentally incompetent. Another list will be published before the election, with the names of those who are being purged from the voting lists.

In the last three years, Holland’s office has removed 16,000 people.

States have widely different laws. Maryland and Washington restore civil rights at the end of a sentence, Nebraska instituted automatic restoration of rights after a two-year waiting period following completion of a sentence. But Florida remains the most restrictive.

In 2007, when Charlie Crist was governor, he implemented procedures to restore rights more quickly, The Sentencing Project report stated.

But the policy was changed in March 2011 by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet. The group voted unanimously to require ex-felons to wait at least five years after they completed their sentences to apply for the restoration of their civil rights. For more serious offenses, the waiting period is seven years.

Attorney General Pam Bondi pushed the changes. She joined the governor, Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater in approving the new guidelines.

“The rules we adopted today are fair and restore a proper respect for law-abiding citizens,” Bondi said. “I believe that it’s only appropriate for the Clemency Board to restore those rights after they have demonstrated a commitment to living a crime-free life. A reasonable waiting period gives us the opportunity to determine whether, in fact, the person has made that commitment.”

About a third of those released from Florida jails and prisons re-offend and are returned to prison, according to the 2009 Florida Prison Study. However, the problem continues to grow with the monthly release of about 4,000 felons who have served their sentences.

In an article she wrote for the Tampa Bay Times in March 2011, Bondi defended the changes, saying it had become too easy to have felons’ rights restored under the Crist administration.

“Before felons are allowed to again participate in making the law, they should show a willingness to obey the law,” Bondi wrote. “The ‘paid their debt’ argument also wrongly suggests [that] the completion of a criminal sentence signals rehabilitation.”

But some argue the changes went too far.

In 2011, only 78 inmates had their civil rights restored, compared with 38,871 under Crist in 2007, said Florida State University professor Mark Schlakman, senior program director at the FSU Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

The number of ex-felons seeking pardons is a somewhat murky statistic. When the new rules were put in place, former convicts who had not met the time-limit rules were no longer qualified, Schlakman said.

As of July 1, the official backlog at the Florida Parole Commission was 21,197 applicants.

Schlakman, along with former Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil, who is Quincy police chief and president of The International Association of Chiefs of Police, and Ion Sancho, Leon County supervisor of elections, are supporting federal legislation to restore ex-felons’ voting rights in federal elections, while inmates wait for their state rights to be restored.

A 2011 Florida Parole Commission study found a positive correlation between ex-felons regaining their civil rights and a significant reduction in recidivism, Schlakman said.

In an op-ed published in the Tallahassee Democrat this summer, the three officials suggested changes to the prison restoration system.

The issue, they wrote, seems to be a philosophical question: “Have ex-felons paid their debt to society upon completion of sentence?”

“From a practical standpoint, civil rights restoration cases could be processed routinely by the Clemency Board upon completion of sentence, eliminating the need for costly and cumbersome levels of scrutiny,” their op-ed stated.

“If Gov. Scott and the Cabinet can navigate around the philosophical question, they appear to have compelling cause to revisit the highly restrictive civil rights restoration policy that they implemented last year, and consider moving toward routine rights restoration upon completion of sentence, an approach embraced by Gov. Reubin Askew in 1975.”

Ron Word

About EU Jacksonville