Voters could soon decide if convicted felons should regain right to vote

ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida voters could have the chance to approve a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore civil rights for nonviolent felons after they have completed their sentences.

Desmond Meade is the president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

He is one of many volunteers who have collected more than 68,000 signatures, the number required for a Supreme Court review, to determine if the issue should be put on the ballot in 2018.

[WEB EXTRA: The Sentencing Project]

"Every American citizen, once they've paid their debt to society, deserves to have that right restored to them immediately, because that's what citizenship is all about," Meade said.

It's been 12 years since Meade served time for nonviolent felony offenses. 

He has gone on to get married, and even graduated law school, but he still can not vote.

His wife, Sheena Meade, ran for a seat in Florida's Legislature this year and Meade said not being able to vote for her was "heartbreaking."

Even though he graduated from law school, he can't practice law.

His felony conviction prohibits him from taking the Florida Bar. 

"You shouldn't have to pay for the rest of your life," Meade said.

Meade is by no means alone.

There are more than one 1.6 million felons in the state, according to The Sentence Project, an organization that has tracked incarceration rates by state for 30 years.

No Longer A Citizen

In 1997 Laura Johns pleaded guilty to a nonviolent felony.

She never served time but was sentenced to probation, which she completed. Nearly 20 years later, she still can't vote.

"You're basically being told that you're no longer a citizen of the state of Florida and it makes you feel like you're no longer an American," Johns said.

Nationally Florida, Kentucky and Iowa have the most extreme policies requiring all felons to petition to get their rights back, according to the Sentencing Project.

In Florida, four people make the decision, a clemency board made up of the governor, attorney general, chief financial officer and the commissioner of agriculture and consumer services.

Since Gov. Rick Scott has been in office, fewer felons have had rights restored than previous administrations.
During his two terms as governor, Jeb Bush restored the rights of 76,736 felons.

Gov. Charlie Crist had his clemency board automatically restore civil rights to over 155,315 people.

But in 2011, Scott overturned automatic restoration and has only restored the rights of 2,251 people.

"It's vitally important that we take that kind of power out of the hands of politicians and put it in the constitution," Meade said.

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