Workshops set on ex-felon civil rights
Harriet Ludwig
October 2005

Two workshops to advise ex-felons on the restoration of civil and voting rights will be held Thursday, Oct. 20 and Tuesday, Nov. 15 by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission at the Alachua County Downtown Library in Meeting Room A from 6 to 8 p.m.

Florida ex-felons continue to undergo the lengthy appeals process although a growing number of states restore civil rights to ex-felons when they complete their prison sentences.

The announcement came from Atty. Meshon T. Rawls, assistant public defender, Eighth Judicial Circuit. She co-chairs the African American Legal Community group of the newly-organized African American Accountability Alliance.

Florida's disenfranchisement of ex-felons although they have done their time in prison gained national attention in presidential election 2000. Secretary of State Katherine Harris advised all county elections supervisors to refuse voter registration to all ex-felons, including those whose rights had been restored in other states.

Two earlier state courts had ruled that those ex-felons could vote without going through the Board of Clemency's lengthy appeals process. Thomas Johnson, now director of Gainesville's House of Hope, had served a prison sentence in New York on a drug charge and regained his civil rights on completion of his sentence.

When he was denied registration as a voter here in 2000, he fought back. The N.Y. University's Law College Brennan Center took his case pro bono and filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Florida. The suit charged racial discrimination in denying the vote to the black majority of ex-felons.

That suit was denied a federal court hearing in Miami. The appeal of that ruling is still waiting hearing in another federal court in Miami.

The Florida denial of votes to ex-felons dates back to Reconstruction days of the 1800's. It was a sweeping effort to limit black political power. Due to extensive publicity on his case, Johnson has been allowed to register to vote.

An Aug. 29, 2005 N.Y. Times article cited "the ugly legacy evident in statistics showing that black people account for about 40 percent of the disenfranchisement cases and only about 12 percent of the population."

The same article pointed out that the Iowa governor recently signed an executive order restoring voting rights to ex-felons who complete their sentences. And the Nebraska legislature voted to restore their rights after they complete their sentences and go through a two-year waiting period.

The question of how many voters were wrongly disenfranchised was hotly debated in the closely contested politics of the Gore-Bush race for the presidency. That battle has spurred the statewide campaign to end disenfranchisement

A person with a past felony conviction loses not only the right to vote, but also the right to hold public office, serve on a jury and hold certain types of state job licenses. The law applies to ex-felons:

During the workshops, applicants are paired with volunteers who can assist with completing the application and preparing documents to submit to the Clemency Board.

"The application process is long and there are no guarantees that your rights will be restored, but submitting the application is often recognized as a positive step that may help you achieve other goals," Rawls' notice said.

For any questions about the workshops, interested persons may call the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission at 376-2442 and leave a message with full name and phone number.

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