Barred for Life

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

During the course of litigation, Berg discovered that the Department of Corrections had failed to assist 125,000 felons released from prison or supervision between 1992 and 2000 in getting their rights restored. "They claimed that didn't occur because of a computer glitch, that they ran out of six-digit inmate numbers, went to an alphanumeric system, and their computers didn't pick that up," Berg explains. "As a result, 125,000 inmates didn't go to the parole commission to determine whether they should get their rights restored by hearing or not."

As of the beginning of November 2002, the parole commission had a backlog of 81,000 cases, which includes cases from the computer glitch. The DOC has lent eight employees to the commission to work on the overlooked inmates, parole commission chairman Henry says. "We have commitments from both the governor and [DOC] that until we catch up and resolve it, they're going to be here with us," Henry says. "You gotta remember, we're getting more in each month as we speak because people are being released every month."

Asked point-blank if there's a time frame for eliminating the backlog, Henry admits: "I don't think we'll ever eliminate the backlog with the current resources we have."

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

Keep in mind, however, that Henry's office is simply dividing felons into two groups: those who are eligible for restoration without a hearing and those who require one. It's after this point, Berg points out, where much of the problem lies. "In fact the statistics that the parole commission is now keeping show that 28 to 30 percent of those being released will get their rights restored without a hearing," he says. "Roughly 70 percent will not. Of that 70 percent who won't, very few will ever get their civil rights restored in Florida because the process with a hearing is so bureaucratic and burdensome. It's 70 percent of everyone being released from prison!"

The black caucus lawsuit argued that the DOC has a statutory responsibility to assist that 70 percent of felons in completing applications. In August this year, the judge ruled that the current practice by the DOC of e-mailing the felon list to the parole commission fulfilled the agency's statutory obligation. Berg plans to appeal the case.

Hopeful felons began collecting in the lower level of the Tallahassee Capitol well before the governor and cabinet were scheduled to meet on the morning of December 12. Husbands and wives murmured in tight couplets in the corridors. Finely suited attorneys carried on louder conversations via cell phones. By 9:00 a.m., most were seated in the austere confines of the cabinet meeting room, which four times a year is home to the Executive Clemency Board. Thirty applicants were listed on the day's agenda as seeking only restoration of civil rights, having waived a specific request to possess a firearm.

The chamber's energy level ignited as Gov. Jeb Bush entered a side door at the front of the chamber. The Capitol press corps swarmed the governor, and his face glowed from TV lights. He wore a greenish-gray suit with a baby-blue shirt, pastel colors that stood out against the no-nonsense black leather chairs and cherry-wood walls. In good humor, he appeared utterly relaxed and in control among the six cabinet members and a dozen staffers on the periphery. Despite the gut-wrenching two hours to follow, he remained unflappable.

But then emotion is the coin of the realm in the Executive Clemency Board chambers. In a spectacle that left the average person squirming in his seat, men and women of all ages wept before the governor for a chance to vote once again. "To be in this position is one of the most difficult for a governor," Bush pronounced at one point.

Edgell Sawyer, a robust and bald 81-year-old, prefaced his plea for civil rights by noting: "I met many of you while you were campaigning this year. I wanted to vote for you ... which brings me to the reason I'm standing here today." Laughter filled the room, but Sawyer quickly turned plaintive, stating he was old and wanted to vote once again before he died. "I fought, gentlemen, I fought," he sobbed as he described flying missions over Europe during World War II. Without comment, Bush told him he would take the case under advisement.

William Randolph Loe, a middle-age man dressed in a suit several times too big, shook as he began to beseech the board. His wife stood behind him. The bodily tremors and tears kept him choking as in fragmented syntax he confessed his remorse, religious conversion, and new life as a giving man. Bush granted him a full pardon.

The last of the applicants, Brian Vaun Wilder, was a composed, goateed man in a gray polyester suit. He was calm as he explained his need to regain his civil rights so that he could once again be licensed as a land surveyor. His conviction had stemmed from a time when he'd been working on prison property and guards found firearms in his truck, which he claimed he'd forgotten to take out after target shooting. It was really just a mixup, he told the board. The governor denied Wilder's request.

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