Barred for Life

The process for restoring the civil rights of felons in Florida works perfectly -- if not restoring their rights is the goal

Chris and Robin DiFranco operate a small contracting business from a worn second-story suite in North Miami. A couple of blocks from Dixie Highway, their cream-colored building is surrounded by a hodgepodge of auto-body and machine shops. The deadbolted first-floor door opens to a long flight of bare-wood steps. Their office is homey, though, all the more so for the presence of Brat and Little Girl, an affable feline duo who have shredded a good deal of furniture. The DiFrancos' desks are nestled to one end, around the spacious room's one window and the all-important air conditioner.

Chris is a large man with a sizable gut, a round smiling face, a short white beard, and salt-and-pepper hair. The 48-year-old possesses a voice powerful enough to bend steel. Most of the time he speaks calmly, even wryly, about his role in transporting marijuana in the 1980s, his conviction, and a two-year campaign to restore his civil rights so he could become a licensed contractor. But on occasion his voice rises with anger, reverberating the chests of everyone in the room.

Robin, on the other hand, is neither physically nor vocally imposing. She's a slim and youngish 46, with short, curled brunette hair. She's partial to toe rings and sports an ankle-encompassing tattoo. Her demeanor is charming and innocuous, traits that overlay and even disguise her tenacity and pragmatism. Luckily for her husband, those are the personality traits needed to surmount the bloated bureaucracy and subjectivity of rights restoration in Florida.

illustration by Robert Neubecker
Chris and Robin DiFranco experienced the trials of Job in restoring his civil rights
Colby Katz
Chris and Robin DiFranco experienced the trials of Job in restoring his civil rights

Chris describes his wife's prowess at burrowing through officialdom: "She dug and dug and chipped and hit until she either went under it or through it."

Robin recalls: "You feel very small in the system, that the chance of getting anything done is little."

Thousands of Florida's felons who've served their sentences and probation must follow the same arduous trail if they wish to possess basic civil rights in Florida once again. Few will succeed. Perennial legislation and two ongoing lawsuits have as yet been unsuccessful in busting the bureaucracy and mindset that keep the restoration process so complex. Gov. Jeb Bush, who with a word could clear the path, has said he does not intend to do so.

Chris sits at his desk, the air conditioner blasting away at the back of his head. He lifts a legal document. "This is the government's report from the Department of Justice that told the grand jury what [we] did," he says. "We moved some shit." He was on the bottom rung of a pot-smuggling operation that involved dozens of people who, the government estimated, moved more than 200,000 tons over many years. Chris's brother was involved, as were many of the friends he grew up with in the Miami area. "Back in the Seventies, [smuggling drugs] became a big thing down here," he recalls. "It really built this town in the Seventies and Eighties. Anybody who grew up here knew someone who was involved in one way or another."

His indictment in 1993 stemmed from a federal investigation that began in 1985. In 1995 he pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to import marijuana; he avoided jail time because he had no prior convictions and only a minor role in ground transportation of marijuana. The judge sentenced him to five years' probation. By June 2000 he was "off paper," meaning he had completed his probation and all other requirements stemming from the conviction.

Chris had received a building contractor's license in 1993 and had renewed it annually. "Financially, I wasn't doing real well, so I went to work for a contractor in South Beach for over five years as project manager," he says. "I didn't need to be licensed. I maintained [the license] for two years but didn't use it. One year when the application came, we put it on inactive status." He shakes his head: "Big mistake. Big mistake. If I had known what you have to go through to reactivate it ..."

After getting off paper, he filled out an application to reinstate his contractor's license, which included a question about whether his civil rights had been taken away due to a felony. He answered honestly. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation notified him that he would not be eligible until he'd completed the clemency process.

Around that same time, he filled out a one-sheet form requesting restoration of his civil rights and sent it to the Office of Executive Clemency in Tallahassee. That office then sent it back because it didn't have a copy of a document indicating that probation was completed, a certificate that was not yet available. The DiFrancos sent it back on August 7. On August 29 the paperwork was forwarded to the Office of Clemency Administration, which is the investigative division of the Florida Parole Commission. The documents were then sent on to a regional office in western Miami-Dade County for a complete review of the case, which was the "beginning of the nightmare," Robin declares.

"It went and sat in a locked drawer," she says of the application. "It waits for a parole counselor to pull it up and start the background check." She began calling Donald Henry, the regional administrator in charge of the civil rights restoration files. "I called him once a week. When we started, our application was number 72. It sat at 72 for six months. I wasn't going to go away.

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