King Week event assists felons in wiping slate clean

Published: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 3:48 a.m.
Caroline E. Kravath, a Gainesville civil rights attorney, shows the audience Saturday the form for convicted felons seeking to restore their voting rights in the Martin Luther King Multipurpose Center. Alan Bushnell, assistant public defender, listens.
Paul Hill asks a panel discussing the restoration of civil rights for felons for guidance in regaining his rights Saturday at the Martin Luther King Multipurpose Center off of Waldo Road.
The state of Florida is among the most archaic states when it comes to restoration of certain civil rights for felons, Alachua County Commissioner Rodney Long said to a group that gathered Saturday.
"Today we are going to begin the process that will allow many of you to start removing that scar on your past," said Long, who moderated the event.
About 75 people attended the four-hour program, "Empowerment for the Next Decade," that included a panel discussion, presentations and break-out sessions at the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center. The event is part of King Week 2005.
Many audience members had criminal records or had family members whose past criminal activity hindered efforts to improve their lives.
Jason Yates, 29, who said he is serving 10 years on probation for a crime committed when he was 22 years old, drove more than two hours from Riverview in Hillsborough County to attend the program.
"It's my ambition to get my record expunged for a mistake that happened in 1998," said Yates, who added that he has plans to start his own business.
When someone with a criminal past is able to expunge and seal his criminal record, that person can seek better employment, begin the process of applying for certain state occupational licenses and restore his or her right to vote, Long said.
Panelists included Alan Bushnell, assistant public defender; Thomas Johnson, executive director and pastor of House of Hope; Caroline E. Kravath, a civil rights attorney; and Michael Bowie, president of the Alachua County branch of NAACP.
Members of Josiah T. Walls Bar Association offered free legal counsel and helped applicants fill out "Restoration of Civil Rights" applications during the break-out sessions.
Johnson, a panelist who is also a plaintiff in Johnson v. Bush, is a felon who has been successful in restoring his civil rights.
"I got my rights restored to vote," Johnson said. "I hope everyone has the energy to get their rights back."
Members of the audience who filled out applications Saturday to begin the process to have their records expunged and sealed will be tracked during the next 45 days, said Long, during which time they were instructed to collect letters of recommendations, character references and other supporting material. Within the next four months completed applications will be mailed together to the Office of Executive Clemency by the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Florida. The opportunity for applicants to be successful is enhanced by making sure they'll have everything they will need, said Long.

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