Forum addresses restoring rights of ex-felons

Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 3:15 p.m.
Two lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida were in Gainesville to discuss the restoration of ex-felons' civil rights at a forum The event, held Saturday at the MLK Multi-Purpose Center, was a part of King Week 2007.
Meshon Rawls, restoration of civil rights project coordinator for the King Commission, told people in attendance that the forum had three objectives.
"The purpose here today is to educate people about disenfranchisement, update people on where we are today as far as restoration of ex-felons' civil rights in Florida, and to provide assistance for people who need their rights restored," Rawls said.
Former state Rep. Ed Jennings Jr. urged people to get involved in the fight to have ex-felons' civil rights automatically restored.
"It is hard in this country to be a full citizen if you don't have your civil rights," Jennings said. "Everyone must be a part of the statewide effort."
Jennings said Florida Gov. Charlie Crist made promises during the campaign season that he was going to do something about the issue.
"Crist said he was going to have this issue as a major priority," Jennings said. "We can't sit back and watch people be discriminated against. There are so many things you can't do without your civil rights."
Jennings said the biggest right ex-felons lose is their right to vote.
"We have more than the number of ex-felons who couldn't vote in the 2000 elections that saw President Bush get elected right here in Gainesville," said Jennings, suggesting that if ex-felons had the right to vote and actually voted that there is a strong possibility President Bush would never have been elected.
"This is a clear and present danger," Jennings said.
Muslima Lewis, director of the Racial Justice and Voting Rights Projects for the ACLU of Florida, said the restoration of ex-felons' civil rights is the hottest topic as far as civil rights is concerned in Florida.
"This is the most important civil rights issue we are facing in Florida right now," she said.
She said a group called the Florida Rights to Restoration Coalition is working hard "to eradicate the laws concerning ex-felons' civil rights. We really are in a very critical time in Florida."
She said the laws concerning restoration of civil rights have a long history, but she also emphasized that laws on the books in states like Florida were developed to keep blacks disenfranchised after the 15th amendment was passed abolishing slavery.
She said some of the laws written during that time have been found by courts to be unconstitutional because they were found to be intentionally designed to disenfranchise a specific race. However, in states like Florida, courts have not found that to be the case.
"In states like Florida, the courts have found no clear racial intent," Lewis said. "We have exhausted judicial ways to change the law."
She went on to say that 20 percent of blacks in Florida are disenfranchised. She added that people who are disenfranchised are more likely to be recidivists.
Lewis said the laws can be reformed in two ways. The first way is to amend the constitution. She said that can be done by a legislative joint resolution, or by a citizens initiative where a certain amount of signatures can be attached to a petition to have the issue put on a ballot.
She said the other way to have the law reformed is by the governor and two of his Cabinet members signing an executive order.
Lewis was joined by Aziza Naa-Kaa Botchway, a staff counsel in the Racial Justice and Voting Rights Project of the ACLU of Florida.
She said one of the most important things ex-felons can do while trying to get their rights restored is to attach as much information as they can to their application that is reviewed by the Florida Clemency Board.
"The process of getting rights restored requires ex-felons submitting supplemental information," Botchway said.
In an interview with the Guardian after the forum, Lewis commented that, "I think there is a lot of support for this issue by the voters and citizens of Florida. I think Gov. Crist sees the importance of this to the state as well."
She said a lot of people don't understand how the system works, and added that she is hopeful Gov. Crist can put this issue behind the state by signing an executive order.
"Gov. Crist and two other Cabinet members have the power to change the law immediately," Lewis said.
Lewis said it is important for ex-felons to understand how much power is in the right to vote.
"Voting is the most powerful way to effect change in our communities," she said. "If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.
"It starts in the home. Parents who vote tend to have children who vote when they become eligible. You can start with yourself, then make a difference in other people's lives."
Kijofa Kirkland, 30, said he learned a lot by coming to the forum.
"I came to get more information about getting my rights restored," said Kirkland, adding that getting his rights restored will help him get the kind of employment he really wants. "I have more contact numbers to call now and more workshops to go through. Now, I can call and see where I'm at in the process. I have already got it started."
It was announced at the forum that the Alachua County Democratic Executive Committee sent a formal letter to the governor and the Legislature urging them to immediately restore the rights of ex-felons.
Rawls, the project coordinator for the restoration of civil rights for the MLK Commission, announced that there will be four workshops in the coming months to assist ex-felons in learning about the process of getting their rights restored.
The dates are: Feb. 8, March 8, April 12 and May 10. All workshops will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and they will be held at the University of Florida's Eastside Campus Community Room at 2006 NE Waldo Road.

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