Voting rights activist Desmond Meade calls for criminal justice reform in Tallahassee

Hundreds march on Florida Capitol for Advocacy Day ‘22

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition — with Executive Director Desmond Meade and hundreds of returning citizens in tow — spent Wednesday in Tallahassee to observe Returning Citizens Legislative Advocacy Day 2022.

They wanted lawmakers to hear their voices when it comes to a second chance at employment, access to housing and voting.

Meade, a former felon whose own civil rights were restored in October, called for criminal justice reform from the steps of the Florida Capitol building.

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“If you’re talking about criminal justice reform, if you’re talking about improving our communities, then you have to have a conversation with the people that’s been impacted the most, the people that should be living in these conditions on a daily basis,” Meade said.

Hector Rivero lives in Orlando and was among the hundreds of people who traveled to Tallahassee. He said he served more than 20 years in prison on several felony charges.

“I have qualifications for a job, but I can’t get a job for something I did when I was 20 years old,” Rivero said. “I paid my time, but I’m still paying for it and I’m going to pay for it for the rest of my life”

Marquis Mckenzie, 31, said he spent two years behind bars for armed robbery and now owns a cleaning business in Orlando.

“At the age of 15, I lost my voting rights before I even had them,” Mckenzie said. “It almost kind of forced me to be an entrepreneur because that was the only path I was able to find success at.”

They joined many others Wednesday in Tallahassee pushing for the success of three key bills.

  • SB 1548 / HB 1259: Occupational Licensing
    • Both Occupational Licensing bills would prohibit occupational licensing boards in Florida from denying an application solely because of a person’s conviction. Under the legislation, only felony convictions directly related to the occupation may be considered for approval, and a license could not be denied due to an applicant’s record if the person can show rehabilitation and ability to perform the job. This bill would reduce barriers for people with felony convictions and would allow them to earn an occupational license.
  • SB 1732: Landlord Liability
    • The Landlord Liability bill would lay out that a landlord cannot be held liable solely for leasing a housing unit to a tenant convicted of or found guilty of a criminal offense, except for under specific circumstances. The goal is to increase opportunity for returning citizens and landlords alike by reducing the risk to landlords solely for renting to people with felony convictions.
  • SB 1862: Background Screening (“Desmond Meade Bill”)
    • The Background Screening bill would require that any entity that contracts with the Florida Department of Corrections for prison labor may not exclude a person once they are released from prison from consideration for employment or disqualify them from a job because of their criminal record unless certain conditions are met.

“There’s no one among us who is perfect,” Meade said. “We’ve all made mistakes.”

The theme for Advocacy Day 2022 was “Our Vote, Our Voice, Our Vision,” with the goal of bridging the gap between key elected officials of differing party affiliations to advance several pieces of FRRC-backed legislation, the coalition said. In Meade’s view, he said people from all walks of life and any political persuasion can see their futures uprooted by a felony conviction, and changes to that effect must come from both sides of the aisle.

“(It’s) that vision that we’re up here today to cast, right, as we’re speaking to our elected officials, knowing that a rising tide will lift all boats,” Meade said. “If we’re able to strengthen the segment of people who have been most weakened by these systems, right, if we’re able to strengthen that, then we will become a stronger community, we’ll become a stronger state.”

Fellow FRRC leaders and those in the crowd sought to meet with lawmakers and advocate for new policies to return employment, housing and voting opportunities to previously incarcerated individuals and their families impacted by non-violent and non-sexual felony convictions, according to FRRC Deputy Director Neil Volz.

“12 buses from all across the state, filled with folks full of hope and a belief and a vision that we can change our state for the better, came up here today. We have nearly 100 scheduled meetings with elected officials from both sides of the aisle, the House and the Senate, and we’re going to go talk to our elected officials about the vision Desmond outlined,” Volz said.

Democratic State Senator Randolph Bracy of Orlando has been working to get these bills heard but said it’s been slow motion.

“Many people in Tallahassee don’t think we need to do anything for returning citizens so it’s a constant battle,” Bracy said. “It’s important that groups like this come up and advocate for bills like this because legislators can’t do it all.”

News 6 political analyst Jim Clark explained why he believes these bills are stalled.

“I think in an election year they’re really controversial. They’re sure to have the opposition of various boards,” Clark said.

“It is always a delicate balance between holding offenders accountable and restoring their lives and families. We will continue to look for solutions with healing visitation and re-entry efforts,” Republican Senator Dennis Baxley said when asked for comment on the FRRC’s rally.

News 6 reached out to more Republican lawmakers to get reaction about the bills. This story will be updated if we receive any more responses.

News 6 will keep you posted on the status of these bills and the push by many for more rights for returning citizens.

About the Authors:

Brandon, a UCF grad, joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021. Before joining News 6, Brandon worked at WDBO.

Jerry Askin is an Atlanta native who came to News 6 in March 2018 with an extensive background in breaking news.